VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa never doubted teammate Ryan Kesler would come back after limping off the ice and into the locker room during Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks.
And there was no question Kesler, who returned to score the tying goal with 13.2 seconds left in regulation, would be ready to start the Stanley Cup finals, especially after the NHL announced they won’t begin until June 1.
“He won’t let anything stop him,” said Bieksa, who scored the series-clinching goal on a lucky bounce in double overtime. “If it was something serious they would have just cut it off and put a prosthetic on and he would have kept playing and probably still would have scored.”
Kesler, who once asked doctors to cut off a badly broken finger in the playoffs and returned within minutes after losing teeth to an errant puck in the second round, made it clear Thursday he would have been ready for the finals whenever they started.
He jokingly said about hobbling off the ice during Game 5 that he left to call his wife because he thought he left the iron on.
But it’s just as clear other Canucks will benefit from the break.
Vancouver may not know who it will play for the Stanley Cup yet — Boston and Tampa Bay will play a decisive Game 7 Friday night — but coach Alain Vigneault said defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome, both hurt during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, will be ready when they do.
Ehrhoff had 50 points in the regular season and is tops among remaining defensemen in the playoffs with 11, and Rome was averaging 13 minutes of ice time on a third pairing.
After 18 games over six weeks, it’s safe to assume others are hurting too.
Captain Henrik Sedin never admitted to a specific injury, but said six days off between eliminating Nashville and taking on San Jose was needed. After just four points and a minus-4 rating against the Predators, he matched a team record with 12 points in just five games against the Sharks.
“It’s taxing on your body three grueling playoff rounds,” Bieksa said. “It’s no secret we got guys who are banged up and playing hurt and doing a great job of it, so to get the extra days is a huge for us. Mentally is as important as physically: Recharge your mind and get ready for another battle.”
Sami Salo, a 36-year-old defenseman preparing for his first finals, agreed.
“Getting off the roller coaster ride,” Salo said of the break. “Being up so high after the win and it takes you back down to earth and lets you prepare for the next round.”
The break before that round starts means their eventual opponent from the Eastern Conference also gets four days off — and another two before playing Game 2 on Saturday June 4.
Vigneault said that negates any schedule disadvantage for needing seven games to advance, but the Canucks are content to use that time to prepare for their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 17 years.
Given they are also trying to become the first Canadian team to win a Cup since Montreal in 1993, there will be added distractions, but Vigneault said they met Thursday to deal with it.
“Tickets, what we do with families, etcetera, etcetera,” Vigneault said. “Management has come up with a plan to make sure everything is covered and players can focus on playing.”
That includes getting back on ice Friday after two complete days off, skating again Saturday before getting Sunday off, and then coming back to practice Monday and Tuesday before hosting Game 1 next Wednesday.
Still, it will be impossible for players — and among the healthy ones only Raffi Torres has ever played for a Cup before — to avoid the hype that has engulfed the city.
More than 20,000 fans spilled into the streets to celebrate after Bieksa’s goal late Tuesday night sent the Canucks into their first Cup finals since 1994.
That ended in a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers and a riot that caused more that $1 million in damage and injured more than 200 people in Vancouver. But local police announced they will spend at least $500,000 to ensure this year’s atmosphere is more like last spring s Olympics, with a festive, safe, street party feel.
As for Canucks players, they are trying to embrace it — from arm’s length.
“We’re feeding off the emotion and passion of the city,” Beiksa said. “To see people crying when they come up to you just because we are going to the Stanley Cup finals, we are definitely impacting the community and it’s a great feeling. But it’s kind of tough to try not to think about it a whole lot because there is a big job ahead of us. We’ve got the biggest series of our lives coming up.”
And almost a full week still to think about it — and prepare for it.