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PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1

Kesler will reprise his role as the villain when Flames take to ice against Ducks in Round 1

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgary

ANAHEIM - From the theme-park dreamland that gave you Captain Hook, Scar, Shere Khan and Cruella de Vil …

Ladies and gentlemen, if you please, a big Calgary white-hat welcome for Mr. … Ryan … Kesler (loud booing, prolonged hissing).

"Kes,'' laughs Glen Gulutzan, "doesn't mind being the villain.

"He embraces the role.

"He's an effective player. Look at (Jonathan) Toews. How many times have those guys gone toe-to-toe? It's always a battle.

"Personally, I think the world of Kes. We had a great relationship when we were together in Vancouver.

"When he's on your team you think of him as a highly competitive player."

When he's on the other team … well, best not go there. That's language that'd make a longshoreman blush.

Jabbing, jawing, prodding, chirping, inciting, provoking to trigger a reaction (and a retaliation penalty) or barreling into the paint to score a crucial goal.

In Anaheim, they adore the guy. Everywhere else, not so much.

"When people start booing, it means I'm doing something right,'' said Kesler, with a wolf's grin, following the Ducks' Wednesday skate. "That's the way I take it. They booed me in in Winnipeg. They booed me in Calgary. I think they booed me in Vancouver" - where he spent 10 years before moving on to SoCal- "too.

"Just the way I play. I'm not going to let anyone have free ice out there. I'm going to make everywhere earn what they get.

"We play our game if people want to call that intimidation … we're going to continue with a heavy game and grind people out.

"The way we play, I don't think we're welcome at all."

No secret that Sean Monahan's going to get a snoot-full of Kesler throughout this series, particularly during games here at Honda Centre where Randy Carlyle is able to mix-'n-match at his discretion.

Johnny Gaudreau, too, can expect to find No. 17 inside his pocket, looking to rifle any loose change (But that's Micheal Ferland job, to make sure Gaudreau keeps his lunch money).

Monahan's take: Bring it on. Bring him on.

"It's not something I'm not used to,'' parries the centre of the Flames' top attacking unit. "I've been going against guys like that for the last two or three years here. 

"Every time I seem to step on the ice, he's hopping over the boards. We know it's coming. You like to play against guys like that, he makes you want to be better, have to be better.

"This is playoffs, you do whatever you can to be better than the guy opposite you.

"He's going to be opposite me.

"That's my job.

"Me and Johnny, whenever we're out there, he's there, too … that's just how it works."

At 6-2 and 200-plus pounds, Kesler's a load. What's lost in the extra circulars is that there's more, much more, than simply abject villainy.

"We're not worried about the antics,'' says Flames' winger Kris Versteeg. "For me, you worry about him as a player.

"We've competed in a lot of big series against each other over the years, engaged in our share of battles. I've enjoyed them, actually.

"I don't play him as a character, I play him as a guy that can hurt you on the sheet."

Partnered with speedster Andrew Cogliano and sniper Jakob Silfverberg, Kesler is centring a formidable line.

"Playoffs,'' he says, "is a different animal. I think we all know that. Every shift, every second you can change a game.

"With Cogs and Silfver now we've really rounded the line out. We can really play any way you want to. And that's what I like about playing with those two. We really read off each other well."

In what promises to be a tense, taut, emotional series, initiation and reaction will be difference-makers. The Flames promise not be baited or goaded into anything foolish.

"First of all, (Kesler)'s a really good player at both ends of the ice,'' says captain Mark Giordano. "But he does agitate, gets under your skin. We have to do a good job of not letting that happen. You want to play hard between the whistles - I know you hear that a lot - but the stuff … can obviously hurt you.

"First and foremost, that's a pretty good line. We've got to key on them."

The battle lines are drawn.

"When I think of villains, I think of (Esa) Tikkanen,'' says Gulutzan. "I remember my dad being mad - really mad - at (Ken) Linseman, The Rat, when he was in Philly, too.

"You need those guys. They spice up the league. But what people forget is how.

"(Brad) Marchand? Good player. Great player. Kes, same thing.

"He's not going to give an inch, no matter how you play him. He's going to be hard on you, close to you all the time, not giving you an inch. You can't let that drive you crazy. You have to embrace that, take it on.

"He makes you fight for your territory.

"We have to fight."

Puck-drop nears.

 

 

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