Ryan Kesler hacked at the bouncing puck, and then he hacked some more.
He hung around the net in his season debut and kept chopping until the puck popped past Antti Raanta, the first goal of the Ducks’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday at Honda Center.
It took less than six minutes for Kesler to remind everyone of the tenacity he possesses; the work ethic that has defined his career and earned him the Selke Trophy, given to the top defensive forward, in 2011.
That fervor for hockey was evident last season. That Kesler even suited up was an achievement as he battled the lingering effects of major hip surgery performed June 8, 2017.
There were doubts he would even play this season. After all, Kesler barely resembled his former self throughout 44 games during the 2017-18 season. He labored through games — he was forced to learn to stride all over again — but Kesler refused to take no for an answer. The two-way center was going to play, even if he was far from 100%.
Another rehabilitation stint awaited Kesler, 34, and his arthritic hip again this summer. He wasn’t able to skate as often as his teammates during camp and then he sat out the preseason. Finally, in Game No. 4, he suited up, his first taste of competitive hockey since that first-round exit to the San Jose Sharks in April.
“Everything that I went through for the past year-and-a-half, it hasn’t been fun,” Kesler said at his locker after logging nearly 17 minutes of ice time. “I had fun out there tonight. Last year wasn’t fun.
“To be able to score that goal that early on in the game definitely was relieving. Last season … it’s under the rug now. Today’s a new day and a new season and I’m just happy to be back and healthy.”
Kesler’s presence on the ice was a welcome sight for a club still missing four key forwards to injury — Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Eaves, Corey Perry and Ondrej Kase — but there wasn’t much else for the Ducks to celebrate.
The Ducks were outshot once again — they’ve held the advantage in only one game — and odd-man rushes developed for the Coyotes with the kind of frequency that “surprised” coach Randy Carlyle.
Special teams were anything but. Dylan Strome beat John Gibson with a power-play snapshot from the left face-off circle with less than two minutes remaining in the opening period. When it was time for the Ducks’ first power play, the Coyotes cashed in.
An errant Sam Steel backdoor pass led to a Coyotes 2-on-1 finished by Brad Richardson for the short-handed goal. Ben Street tied it up for the Ducks with his first NHL goal later on in the second period, and for the second consecutive outing, the Ducks headed to a shootout. Street thought about doing “something crazy as a celebration.” And who could blame him? The 31-year-old admitted it was a “long time coming.” He ultimately decided against anything extravagant.
“You don’t feel that legit until you play in the NHL,” Street said.