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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's Ryan Kesler the total package

If the Vancouver Canucks are now Canada's Team - no matter whether by choice or by default - then the main flag bearer is an American.

All Ryan Kesler did to win Game 3 on Tuesday night was score the goal that put the Canucks back into the match at 1-1, set up the goal that put them ahead 2-1 and then, after the Nashville Predators had tied matters late in the third period, draw the dubious penalty in overtime that gave Vancouver a power play and score the winning goal that gave the Canucks a two-games-to-one lead in this series, which continues Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.

Not a bad night's work for someone who hadn't scored at all in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Kesler is, by his own admission, a "streaky" player. He had 41 goals in the regular season, none in the opening series against Chicago Blackhawks, none against Nashville until he rather dramatically broke out on Tuesday. A red-hot Kesler - despite an ice-cold Henrik and a cooled-off Daniel Sedin - is a significant factor in a hockey series where the goaltending has been so sharp and the defence so suffocating that goals are as rare Canadian teams winning Canada's most-revered trophy.

Kesler's best play Tuesday probably had nothing whatsoever to do with his own hockey stick - but rather the stick of Nashville captain Shea Weber, who was sent to the penalty box in overtime for hooking Kesler.

"I've got one hand on my stick and he grabs my stick," said a bewildered Weber. "And I get a penalty?"

Wednesday afternoon, Kesler was sticking to the story: "He was hooking me."

At least that is what his mouth said. Kesler's mouth is easily the least interesting part of his personality. If you wish to know what he really said, you have to listen to his eyes and that small twitch that sometimes turns up the edge of his mouth. What the eyes said was this: "Damn right I suckered him. I had my arm and elbow clamped down on his stick like a big turkey wing and the referee fell for it - Shea Weber can go cry to his Mawwwmmmie for all I care…"

Kesler is 26 years old and, while long a known force in Vancouver, is only now getting the widespread appreciation his play deserves - and as much for what he has accomplished in international play as in NHL play.

He is, for the third year in a row, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward, though there are many in Vancouver who believe he also could have been a candidate for the Hart Trophy as the most-valuable player, a nomination that went to teammate Daniel Sedin, an obviously worthy candidate given that Sedin won the NHL scoring championship.

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The Michigan-born Kesler may well today be the best U.S.-born player in the world at the moment, given that Chicago's little Patrick Kane was a bit off this year. It is a remarkable rise for a player who, little more than a decade ago, was cut from several elite teams he tried out for and wondered if hockey was really for him. His father Mike - who drove eight hours from Livonia, Mich., to watch Tuesday's game - took him on the bantam team he was coaching and kept the kid in the game.

Rather than the major-junior route chosen by most Canadian youngsters, he is a product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and Ohio State University. At 18, he went 23rd overall in the entry draft, far behind such today stars as Pittsburgh's Marc-André Fleury, Carolina's Eric Staal and Boston's Nathan Horton (first, second and third overall). He was not even the top American taken, chosen after Ryan Suter had gone seventh to Nashville, Zach Parise 17th to New Jersey and Dustin Brown 13th to Los Angeles.

But very quickly his career began to shine. Vancouver lent him to the U.S. team entering the 2004 world junior championship, where he scored the third-period goal against Canada that tied the gold-medal game 3-3 and led to the stunning 4-3 U.S. victory when Canada later scored on itself. It was the U.S. team's first win in the tournament. He was, as well, a key player for the Americans in the Vancouver Winter Games, scoring the first goal as the United States came back to tie the Canadians 2-2 and force overtime in the gold-medal game, a game won by Canada when Sidney Crosby scored.

He has become a major force, now widely considered one of the game's best two-way players alongside the likes of Detroit's brilliant Pavel Datsyuk. A year ago it paid off when the Canucks signed him to a six-year $30-million (U.S.) extension. No one doubts any longer whether he belongs on elite teams.

"He's a big body, works hard, good hands," says Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, who will have seen enough of Kesler no matter how this series ends. "Somebody you have to be aware of all the time."

"He plays at both ends of the ice," says Suter, a Nashville defenceman who is also one of Kesler's closest friends.

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"He's just the total package - I don't know what else to say."

Say nothing, Ryan Kesler would suggest.

And let the actions speak for themselves.

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