It started even before the opening faceoff of Game 2 between Anaheim and Nashville. Ducks center Ryan Kesler, lining up across from Ryan Johansen, delivered a slash to the Predators pivot’s foot as the two got set to battle for the puck to kick off the contest. From that moment on, Johansen likely knew what kind of night he was in for. Not because he had been slashed, mind you, but because he was lined up across from Kesler and was set to go head-to-head with him all night.
Over the course of Game 2, Kesler skated little more than 20 minutes. Johansen, on the other hand, saw the ice for slightly less than that. Over the duration of Game 2, the two spent more than a dozen minutes sharing the ice. And anyone who has been paying attention to the Ducks this post-season knows exactly what happened over the course of those 12-plus minutes. Wherever Johansen went, there was Kesler. When Johansen thought he had a foot of space, he really had about six inches. To hear Johansen tell it, more often than not it meant pushing a stick out of the way or fighting to get free.
Though it didn’t come through on the scoresheet where Johansen registered two points in Nashville’s 5-3 loss, it was clear post-game that Kesler is starting to bother the Predators’ center, if only just enough for him to make a comment about the style of play Kesler employs.
“He just blows my mind,” Johansen said, according to ESPN’s 102.5 The Game. “I don’t know what’s going through his head out there. His family and friends watching him play, I don't know how you cheer for a guy like that. It just doesn't make sense how he plays the game. I'm just trying to go out there and play hockey and it sucks when you've got to pull a stick out of your groin every shift.”
And saying it happened every shift isn’t exactly a grand exaggeration. Be it a bump, a stick tap, or some shenanigans off the faceoff, Kesler was all over Johansen on Sunday night. Johansen tried to give Kesler some receipts where he could, including an open-ice hit near the benches early in the first frame, but it was Kesler who was continuously in the Johansen’s face.
“He’s a skilled player,” Kesler told Hockey Night in Canada’s Christine Simpson post-game. “And I play the game hard. Obviously, he doesn’t like that.”
The thing is, though, that any complaint about Kesler, be it from Johansen or otherwise, isn’t exactly new information. Outside of being an excellent two-way player and one of the Ducks’ top scorers in the regular season and playoffs, Kesler is a perpetual pest, the type of player who thrives on getting under the skin of his opponents and making every single second of every single shift a nightmare for those who have to compete against him. It’s been this way every post-season since he rose to prominence as a Vancouver Canuck and most certainly in every single series since he ended up in Anaheim. This post-season is no different.
Taking a quick look at Kesler’s work through the first two rounds paints a picture of his usefulness to the Ducks as both a shutdown center and an uber pest, two duties he completes to near perfection. In fact, he’s become so great at the role that it’s been Kesler who has drawn all the top assignments in Anaheim.
Against the Calgary Flames, Kesler saw more minutes against Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan than any other pair of players, skating nearly 90 minutes against the duo in the four-game series. For Gaudreau and Monahan, that meant Kesler was draped all over them more often than not, mixing it up with either of the Flames’ two star forwards when he got the chance. And how did Gaudreau and Monahan respond statistically? Well, Monahan broke free, with four goals and five points, but Gaudreau, Calgary’s top scorer, mustered just two assists as the Flames were swept by the Ducks.
Kesler’s stymying of top stars continued in the second round, but this time he was tasked with shutting down and getting under the skin of Connor McDavid, who was coming off an Art Ross Trophy-winning 100 points in the regular season. More than half of McDavid’s ice time against the Ducks came against Kesler, and it was almost comical how on-top McDavid he was. Throughout the series, there were times it looked like pairs figure skating. Every stride McDavid took, Kesler was moving alongside him in lockstep, cutting when McDavid cut, pivoting when McDavid pivoted and leaving the ice at almost identical times. Kesler won the battle, too. When the series ended, McDavid was held to only three goals and five points in seven games, a sizeable step back from his regular season production. Meanwhile, Kesler chipped in a goal and seven points as Anaheim moved on to the third round.
And in this, the Western Conference final, Kesler’s new assignment is Johansen. However, despite the fact he’s having to find a way to battle through the consistent jabs from Kesler, Johansen is having some offensive success. In Game 1, he notched two assists in Nashville’s win. Game 2 saw Johansen with another two points, albeit in a loss. With each passing game, though, Kesler’s going to continue to put down stakes right in Johansen’s kitchen.
So, this becomes the game within the game, with Kesler pushing every button imaginable while Johansen tries to stay focused long enough to make a difference. It’ll be up to Johansen to ensure he does what no other star has been able to do yet and continue to produce in the face of Kesler’s continuous jabs, verbal or physical. And if he can’t, Johansen may very well be added to the list of star players Kesler has flustered, frustrated and helped send packing.
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