Things are starting to look up for the Vancouver Canucks after an inauspicious start to the season.
After winning its past two games on the back of strong goaltending from Roberto Luongo, Vancouver (4-2-2) received another boost Sunday morning when injured forward Ryan Kesler joined the team for practice.
The 28-year-old centre hasn’t played a game for the Canucks this season as he continues his rehabilitation from surgery on his shoulder and wrist. However, his presence on the ice at Rogers Arena gave his teammates a boost before flying out for a two-game road trip to Edmonton (Monday) and Minnesota (Thursday).
“I’m pretty excited to be finally back out with the guys,” said Kesler, who won the Selke Trophy in 2011. “It’s been an extremely long hard road for me and it felt good to be back out there.”
Kesler said there was still no timeline for his return to the lineup. He will join the team on the trip east this week and plans to keep practising as he improves his strength and timing.
“My goal was to get back out there with the guys,” he said. “I’ve still got a fair bit of a way to go. I had to be patient, that was my biggest thing. I had to keep telling myself, ‘Baby steps, it’s a process,’ and you can’t get ahead of the process.
“But I was really excited to get out there today and after that I’ve still got to be patient, there’s still a long way to go.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault was thrilled to see Kesler back on the ice. While he’s been cleared for contact, he said it’s too early to tell when Kesler will suit up and play.
“I don’t think there’s been any official timeline put as far as Ryan goes,” Vigneault said. “I’ve watched him for the last month. He looks real good and he’s probably in better shape than most of the guys when they arrived here because he had been working with our conditioning guys throughout the lockout and he’s been pushing himself real hard.
“When he’s ready to play he’s going to help us obviously. But it’s good to see him back with the group. He’s in great shape right now and hopefully we’ll have him in our lineup real soon.”
Kesler’s teammates were equally excited to have him back at practice.
“He’s a warrior,” Luongo said. “It was nice to see him battle through and help us out for practice and give the guys a little boost.”
Added defenceman Kevin Bieksa: “It was great to have him out there, he was flying around. As a team we haven’t seen him a whole lot so it was nice to get him back out there and joke around with him a little bit.”
On Monday night, the Canucks will be looking for revenge against Edmonton (4-3-1) after the Oilers came back from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 in a shootout in their first meeting on Jan. 20.
Luongo, who is 2-0-2 this season with a .944 save percentage, will start his fourth straight game. That leaves Cory Schneider — the man originally tabbed to be the No. 1 goalie this season — on the bench once again.
Luongo was solid in a shootout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night and it appears Vigneault is happy to keep riding the goalie with the hot hand.
“It’s nice to play and get the minutes in especially early in the season,” Luongo said. “It’s a short season, every game is important and we’ve been finding ways to win which is nice.”
The Oilers sit one point behind the first-place Canucks in the Northwest Division.
“We had a good game with them here earlier in the season,” Bieksa said. “They’re a young skilled team and it seems like they’re getting better as the season goes on.
“For us we will go in there and approach them the same way, play their three highly-skilled lines tough, play good defensively and we feel like we`ll get our chances at the other end.”