It's a tale of two Ryans in Music City.
The two sparred in Game 2 and Johansen's postgame airing of his frustration at what he perceives as Kesler’s over-the-line play envelops the series, tied 1-1, as it moves to Nashville, with Game 3 on Tuesday.
Several ironies are at work. Kesler and Johansen might not face each other much because Nashville, as the home team, will have the last line change for Games 3 and 4. Johansen actually has been successful, with a goal and three assists against the Ducks.
Also, neither Kesler nor Johansen talked to the media Monday. But the topic consumed both teams, and Kesler’s teammates recognized how much an agitating force the Selke Trophy finalist for best defensive forward can be for opponents.
“He would be in my head a little bit,” Josh 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; so far he takes pride in throwing guys off their game.”
Kesler has engaged with Johansen in the type of obstructionist play and mind games he is well known for, and Johansen took a high-sticking penalty against him in Game 2, a 5-3 Ducks win that marked the first time in franchise history that Anaheim won a playoff game in regulation after it trailed by two goals or more.
Johansen drew more attention to the interplay when he responded to a postgame question about whether Kesler was going too far by saying Kesler’s stick work and style of play dumbfounded him.
“I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that,” Johansen said.
Said Nashville’s Colton Sissons of the Kesler-Johansen matchup: “That’s playoffs written all over it. Obviously, there’s some bad blood there and they’ve been competing hard and battling all series. It’s only going to get escalated from here.”
That will depend on whether Nashville coach Peter Laviolette will get Kesler away from Johansen, much as Edmonton coach Todd McLellan tried at times to get Connor McDavid away from Kesler in the second-round Oilers-Ducks series.
“Obviously, the matchup game has been taking place, and he did not shy away from that matchup in the two games in Anaheim,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said of Laviolette. “So whatever he decides [Tuesday], we’ll try to work effectively to get the matchups we would like to have in place.”
As expected, this is a much more physical series than the one with Edmonton, and the dislike will test the disciplined Predators, whose 33 minor penalties are the fewest of the final four playoff teams.
Sissons alluded to it when he said “there is some stuff, extracurriculars after the whistle, that they’re trying to use just to get us off our game and try to get us undisciplined.”
The physicality of the series is the reason Carlyle has gone with Jared Boll as a fourth-line wing. Boll is mostly a fighter and a hitter who, before this season, had not played a playoff game since 2014, with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Boll delivered a big hit on Calle Jarnkrok in Game 1.
“We just feel that in certain situations and where we play that we need that element,” Carlyle said. “And Boll has been a great teammate. He stood up for this hockey club all year. He went out and he’s been physical and disciplined. And he understands his role.”
Elbows and feuds aside, Games 3 and 4 will pit the Ducks’ 4-1 playoff road record against Nashville, 5-0 at home with an overall nine-game home win streak in the postseason. It’s last playoff loss at home was Game 4 of last season’s first-round series against the Ducks.
“That was last year, but I think we did a good job in Edmonton too, and I think definitely we have the experience in this group to steal games on the road,” Jakob Silfverberg said. “It’s going to be a loud building. … It’s going to be an energetic game and it’s going to be a fun one.”