There was a funny bit that TSN's Cabbie Richards did with the Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler just before the NHL playoffs started. Getzlaf, prematurely balding and jeered as "Captain Rogaine" by those ultraclever Winnipeg Jets' fans, was trying on wigs, Kesler offering style advice about the looks that worked for Getzlaf and the ones that didn't.
Kesler is a difficult personality to pinpoint. He can be funny or humourless, snide and sarcastic but charming too, when the mood strikes him. Once, years ago, he and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin taped a motion capture for EA Sports' annual NHL video game on artificial ice in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas just ahead of the annual league awards. Kesler was practically garrulous that night, talking about – among other things – the future of ice-making in the NHL, if warm-weather teams persist in making deep playoff runs.
Well, Kesler now plays for a warm-weather team, threatening to make a deep playoff run. The Ducks will start the Western Conference final Sunday afternoon at home against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago is in the conference final for the fifth time in seven years and has two Stanley Cup championships on its résumé. They are as close as there is to a modern-day dynasty in the NHL's salary-cap era.
Anaheim, by contrast, is here for the first time since the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup. The Ducks were second overall in the West two years ago, but fell in the opening round. Last year, after finishing first overall in the conference, they lost in the second round.
The inability to turn excellent regular-season performances into playoff success was the primary reason Ducks' general manager Bob Murray acquired Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks as his major piece of off-season tinkering. As a GM, Murray is a bold risk-taker.
In addition to adding Kesler, Murray wanted to add depth to his defence and skill up front to round out his team. Not all of the moves paid dividends, but he did extract a nice young piece from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline – 6-foot-4 Simon Després, who plays regularly, mostly with Cam Fowler.
James Wisniewski, sitting in the press box all playoffs, is probably the best No. 7 in the league, a valuable insurance policy in case the Ducks get an injury somewhere along the way. But for the price – Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and a third-round pick – Kesler is turning into easily Murray's most valuable move.
Anaheim's Achilles heel last year was its centre-ice corps – and it has been completely revamped, except for Getzlaf. Gone are Bonino, Saku Koivu and Mathieu Perreault. In their place rookie Rickard Rakell and hard-nosed fourth-liner Nate Thompson, a good faceoff man and quality penalty killer that coach Bruce Boudreau really likes.
Chicago, too, wanted an upgrade down the middle, but because of cap restrictions, could only afford $2-million worth of Brad Richards and then soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Antoine Vermette, acquired at the trading deadline for a No. 1 pick.
Kesler gives the Ducks a major edge down the middle as a result. If Getzlaf and Corey Perry are to the Ducks what Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are to the Blackhawks, then Chicago has no answer for Kesler, who is humming along at a 63.7 per cent success rate on faceoffs this postseason, tops in the NHL. If Kesler can limit Toews's effectiveness there, Anaheim has a legitimate shot at upending the surging Blackhawks.
According to Getzlaf, Kesler's ability to win defensive-zone faceoffs takes a lot of the pressure off him. "It allows our team to have more flexibility in what I do, and where I start shifts, and what minutes I have to play," Getzlaf said. "That's made the biggest difference that I've noticed – I'm able to start more shifts in the offensive zone. I'm not relied on to take every faceoff in the D zone or on the PK. Kes and Tommer have taken a lot of that heat away from me, which is good."
Boudreau has come to rely on Getzlaf and Kesler so much that the two have a nickname now – Keslaf – because one or the other or both is on the ice for most of the key defensive-zone faceoffs late in games, where the Ducks have had uncanny success this year.
Over all, the Ducks have outscored their opponents 16-3 in the third period in these playoffs. Four of their eight playoff wins have come when trailing after two periods, a carryover from the regular season, when they set an NHL record for wins when trailing at any point in the third period (18) and also matched a league record with 12 victories when down after two periods (12-23-0).
Kesler is a big reason why they've managed that.
"That's a pretty good little chip to have," Boudreau said. "Now, he's got to go against Toews, so it'll probably be a little tougher, just from an experience level."
Yes, Kesler can be a lot of things – arrogant, aloof, a teaser in the dressing room, but mostly in these playoffs, he's been all business. "We all know why we're here," said Kesler, after eliminating Calgary. "It's another step in the ladder … but we're only halfway through."