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Kesler's Unrelenting Style Getting Under the Skin of Playoff Opponents

Nashville's Ryan Johansen rants to media after Game 2: 'I don't know how you cheer for a guy like that.'

by Adam Brady @AdamJBrady / AnaheimDucks.com

While most of us go through our lives trying our best to make the world like us, Ryan Kesler is a decidedly different beast.

If people like him, he's not doing his job.

That profession - center and alternate captain for the Anaheim Ducks - comes with a unique job description that frequently requires Kesler to be as unlikeable, unpleasant and obnoxious as humanly possible.

Don't get it wrong - Kesler's teammates love him. And as the team's go-to shutdown center, they rely on him every night to put the clamps on the enemy's top scorers by any means necessary. So far in these playoffs, the targets have included stars like Calgary's Sean Monahan and Edmonton's Connor McDavid, each of whom Kesler helped neutralize in key moments on the way to Anaheim's berth in this Western Conference Final.

Kesler's defensive prowess is manifested in a tireless work ethic but also a mastery of the game within the game - the extra shove, grab, poke, elbow, slash or even verbal jab that gets under the rival's skin while (hopefully) staying within the confines of the rules.

In this series, Kesler's wrath has been focused primarily on Nashville center Ryan Johansen, who made no bones about his disdain for the Ducks veteran after Anaheim's 5-3 victory in Game 2 at Honda Center.

"He just blows my mind," Johansen told reporters afterward. "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 have to pull a stick out of your groin after every shift."

In typical Kesler fashion, he said a lot by saying very little when asked about those remarks in a TV interview later that night.

"I play the game hard," Kesler said, "and obviously he doesn't like that."

Johansen's rant didn't take long to go viral in the hockey universe, and Kesler was asked again about it on the morning of Game 3 in Nashville. He addressed it while leaning casually against a brick wall in a Bridgestone Arena hallway, the black hood pulled over his head giving him the consummate villain appearance.     

Video: Ryan Kesler on his battle with Ryan Johansen

"I laughed," he said while not laughing. "Got a lot of text messages from friends and family saying they still cheer me on. Obviously it seemed like he was a bit rattled. He can say whatever he wants though. I'm not gonna change my game. I'm just going to go out and play my game like I always do."

Johansen did manage to high stick Kesler in the mouth right off a faceoff late in the second period of Game 2, sitting for two minutes during a time Nashville was looking to wipe out a one-goal deficit.

"Obviously he likes to use his stick a little bit," Kesler said. "I think he's taken two slashing penalties on me already. I'm just going to keep playing within the rules and playing my game."

That game is predominantly defensive-focused, but Kesler did have his fourth straight 20-goal campaign this past regular season and he was named a finalist for the fifth time for the Selke Trophy given to the league's best defensive forward (an award he won in 2011 with Vancouver). Through 13 playoff games, he led the NHL in faceoff wins, and he's the anchor on a shutdown line with Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano that has thrived the last several postseasons. Despite taking on the opposing top line nearly every shift, the trio was a combined plus-29 through the postseason's first 13 games.

Cogliano, who played his first seven seasons in the NHL on a different team than Kesler (when the latter was in Vancouver) was asked recently if he hated him as an opponent.

"Oh yeah," Cogliano said, matter-of-factly, "For sure."

Josh Manson, the 25-year-old Ducks defenseman whose father Dave was a notorious meanie during a 16-year NHL career, was asked what it would be like to face Kesler.

"He would be in my head a little bit," Manson said. "He's a tough guy to play against. You watch him and he's a guy that you love to have in [an opponent's] head and you hate to play against. So you watch throughout the series and throughout the playoffs. He takes pride in throwing guys off their game."

As much as the 32-year-old Kesler has accomplished in his 13-year NHL career - and as many opponents as he has tormented - there is still the ultimate goal he hasn't reached. He came close to winning the Stanley Cup with the Canucks when they fell in Game 7 of the 2011 Final to Boston. He endured a couple of Game 7 home defeats with Anaheim before he helped them prevail in Game 7 of the Second Round over Edmonton, a night in which he helped hold McDavid to zero points on just one shot.

For most, the window to win a Cup doesn't stay open for long, and it is clear Kesler will stop at nothing to ultimately hold that chalice over his head.

"I'm gonna do my job every night to help this team win," Kesler says. "That's our sole goal right now. I'm here for one reason, and one reason only, and that's to win games and to ultimately win the series."

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