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Ryan Kesler of Ducks succeeding in villain role against Predators

Anaheim center frustrating Ryan Johansen, Nashville with play in Western Conference Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / Columnist

NASHVILLE -- The villain wore a black hood over his head and, of course, his game face. Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler stood with his back against a wall, looked up at the ceiling and sighed as reporters crowded around. He was ready.

What was his initial reaction when he heard the comments by Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen?

"I laughed," he said.

Not only is Kesler comfortable playing the villain in the Western Conference Final, he relishes it entering Game 3 at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1 after Kesler and Johansen battled for two games at Honda Center, jawing and jabbing, hitting and slashing.

Following the Ducks' 5-3 victory in Game 2 on Sunday, Johansen said of Kesler: "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 [stinks] when you've got to pull a stick out of your groin every shift."

But that's Kesler and has always been Kesler, a stick in the groin, a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck. Like it or not, it makes perfect sense how he plays the game.

He became a five-time finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward, and the winner in 2011, in large part by being a pest. He's difficult to play against. He frustrates you. He makes you think about him instead of your own game.


[RELATED: Complete Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators coverage]


Complaining about him doesn't bother him. It encourages him.

"Got a lot of text messages from my friends and family saying they still cheer me on," Kesler said. "He can say whatever he wants, though. I'm not going to change my game. I'm here for one reason and one reason only, and that's to win some games here and to ultimately win this series."

Did Johansen make it personal?

"I think it was a bit, but doesn't matter," Kesler said. "He's not my friend. He's not going to be my friend. He can say whatever he wants."

Does this mean Kesler is doing his job effectively?

"Yeah," Kesler said. "Obviously seemed like he was a bit rattled. I'm just going to go out and play my game like I always do."

The funny thing is, Kesler and Johansen have some of the same friends. They are represented by the same agent, Kurt Overhardt. And guess who is the head scout for North America for KO Sports?

Video: Breaking down the Kesler-Johansen matchup

Mike Kesler, Ryan's father.

He was unavailable for comment, but you can bet he's proud. A former college player and longtime youth hockey coach, he taught Ryan to skate as hard defensively as offensively. He made Ryan do "the basement drill" if he didn't give his best effort: full gear, no skates, basically a half-hour of cardio.

"I said, 'I will demand that you give 100 percent barring injury or illness. You've always got to work hard,'" Mike Kesler said in an interview in 2011.

The younger Kesler wasn't a star growing up. But once he developed a work ethic, he developed as a player. It made him into a star with the Vancouver Canucks. In 2010-11, he scored 41 goals and won the Selke. He had 11 points (five goals, six assists) in six games against the Predators in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The series was tied 1-1 entering Game 3 at Bridgestone Arena, just as this series is. It was the first second-round game in Nashville, just as it is the first conference final game in Nashville now. Kesler drew a hooking penalty on Predators defenseman Shea Weber in overtime by trapping Weber's stick under his right arm, then parked himself in front of the net on the power play. The puck hit him and went in over the winning goal.

The Predators howled. Kesler made no apologies.

"We were the harder working team tonight," Kesler said then, "and we deserved that one."

The Ducks traded for Kesler on June 27, 2014, for center depth, faceoff prowess and situations like this. They went to the conference final in 2015. They lost a seven-game first-round series to Nashville last season in which Kesler had four goals, including a goal in each of the final three games. Now they're back in the conference final, and Kesler is doing his thing again.

Kesler didn't shut down Johansen in Games 1 and 2; Johansen had four points (one goal, three assists). But he got Johansen to take a couple of slashing penalties.

"It doesn't matter if I did or didn't get in his head," Kesler said. "For me, if I did, good. That means I'm doing my job. If I didn't, you know, I'm going to keep doing the same things and playing defense like I have been. …

"For me, it's the game of hockey, and I play the game hard. Obviously I know he doesn't like it now, and I'm not going to let up just because he said something."

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