The Western Conference Finals were always going to be decided up top. Nashville, without a ton of scoring from its depth forwards, relies heavily on its top line centered by Ryan Johansen, and they’ve been ultra-hot in these playoffs. Anaheim’s shutdown line, anchored by Ryan Kesler, can certainly find the net but makes its bones on keeping opponents frustrated. We’re certainly getting the showdown we were promised, and it’s already nastier than we could have hoped.
You know things are good when Johansen wonders aloud, on Mother’s Day, how Kesler’s mom can root for a player as dirty as him:
“He just blows my mind, I don’t know what’s going through his head out there,” Johansen said.
“Like, 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.”
(Kesler’s response: “I play the game hard, and obviously he doesn’t like that.”)
Johansen had a goal and assist, but it didn’t matter as Anaheim took Game 2 5-3 to even the series up before it heads to Nashville. Kesler’s pestiness (pestilence?) has clearly gotten to Johansen—here are just some of the battles between the two on Sunday.
This, obviously, is what Kesler does. He’s an irritant. He’ll drive you nuts and get you away from your game. He’s also one of the best defensive centers in the league, and he’s been so valuable to the Ducks—which is good, because he didn’t come cheap. In the 2014 offseason he came over from Vancouver with a third rounder in exchange for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and first- and third-round picks. The next summer they signed him to a six-year extension, that will keep him in Anaheim through 2022 at $6,875,000 a year.
But Kesler has done everything the Ducks could have asked for, and his line, with wingers Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano, has been kept together, with only very brief interruptions, for three years now. That’s the highest of functional praise, and it’s a line like few others. It’s a checking line, in a lot of ways—it’s largely smothered the likes of Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau—but it’s also supremely capable of scoring: Silfverberg leads the team in goals with nine this postseason, and Kesler is second on the Ducks with seven assists.
On the other side is Johansen, who came over from Columbus in January 2016 in a blockbuster one-for-one deal for Seth Jones. That’s the sort of luxury the Predators, with their elite and deep defense, had earned themselves: the ability to trade from strength and part with a young potential blueline star for a top-line center. Johansen, between Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, has been nearly unstoppable this postseason—they’ve got 30 points among them, with Johansen pacing the team in assists with 10.
So how’s the matchup played out thus far?
Kesler and his line are doing some good things—he’s winning faceoffs and he drew a high-sticking penalty on Johansen in the second period yesterday—but they aren’t actually stopping the Preds’ big guns. Johansen has a point on four of the Predators’ six goals in this series, and Nashville’s first line has been involved in five of six. They’ll take those results every time, but they’re going to need more scoring from their other forwards, and fewer games like Pekka Rinne’s last night. They’ll also need to keep cooler heads—Sami Vatanen’s goal in the last minute of the first period (with Kesler on the secondary assist) was the first power-play goal by either team in this series, and was huge—who knows how differently Game 2 would’ve played out if the teams had gone to the intermission with Nashville still up 2-0.
(And they’re lucky Forsberg’s poke check to Silfverberg’s Swedish meatballs went uncalled. Yeah, the Predators were a little frustrated.)
Whether Kesler can continue getting under Johansen’s skin, and whether Johansen and his linemates can continue scoring in spite of it, will be things to watch in Tuesday’s Game 3. But on a strategic level, I’m very curious if Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, at home and possessing the last change, will try to keep his top line away from the Ducks’ stoppers. There are a lot of ways this one could go, and they all promise some good bad blood.