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Series On: Physical Play, Trash Talk Ratchets Up Between Preds, Ducks

Posted: 12:11 PM, May 16, 2017
Updated: 2017-05-17 13:56:13Z

Now this series begins.

In the moments after a physical, even chippy, game two of the Western Conference Final in which the Ducks won 5-3 to even this series at a game a piece, even more fireworks came.

A frustrated Ryan Johansen stood in the Predators locker room, almost in a trance while unwrapping his wrist tape, incredulous at the way he had been played by Anaheim center Ryan Kesler.

“I mean, he just blows my mind," Johansen  said. "Watching him, I don’t know what’s going through his head over there. But like, his family and his 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."

It is the soundbite heard around the world since Sunday, and one that probably just made Kesler nod in approval in the Anaheim locker room.

In a matchup of a youthful Predators team full of speed and skill and a veteran Ducks team with big, physical bodies that lean on you all game, the emotions were bound to spill over. The fact that it comes courtesy of Kesler, the Ducks' professional agitator, or as early as game two should be no surprise.

These two teams battled to a seven-game decision a year ago and didn't much like each other to begin with. And now the stakes in a conference final are so much higher.

Kesler is paid to mark, beat on and get inside the head of the opposing team's top offensive threat. The success of his antics made him the 2011 winner and five-time finalist for the Selke Award, given to the league's best defensive forward.

Being a nuisance is his job.

"I just play the game hard," Kesler, who is rarely made available for locker room interviews, told Sportsnet after game two. "I guess he doesn't like that."

Johansen is the "he" in that quote. The Predators top line center has already tied the franchise record for points in a single postseason with 13, including six points in the last three games. It's Kesler's mission to try to break up that rhythm.

"I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey," Johansen went on to say. "It sucks when you’ve got to pull a stick out of your groin every shift.”

Kesler's intentions were made clear right from the opening faceoff of game two, when he repeatedly jabbed his stick blade into the mid-section of Johansen, forcing him to back away and reset. Kesler later delivered a forearm shiver to Johansen's head as the two crossed paths near the boards in front of the benches.

To his credit, the 24-year-old Johansen kept his cool on the ice, delivering a goal and an assist in game two to give him four points for the series.

"I think Ryan was completely composed," Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said following that game. "I thought Ryan was terrific."

The question now for Laviolette is will he allow his young center to take this matchup head on or, with the advantage of last change on home ice, try to separate the Johansen and Kesler lines as much as possible for games three and four.

That remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Kesler is willing to push every button and even cross over the line.

Like it or not, this is the task in front of Johansen for the rest of this series. The poking and prodding is not about to stop. If anything, it will only increase as the tensions rise.

How Johansen and, to a lesser extent, his teammates respond may well determine the West will be won.

Keep their cool and the Predators have the speed and skill to skate past the Ducks. But Anaheim, led by Kesler's physical play, will do everything in it's power to muddy this series up and knock the Preds off their game.

"There's not a lot of room for your own personal assault on somebody because you don't like the way you got played," Laviolette warned even before game two. "You've really got to try to keep everything in check."

That job just got harder, because the heat on an already intense series just got turned up to 11.