By Jim Diamond
There’s just something about a good rivalry… hockey, chess, that one co-worker who tries to beat you to work for that one preferred parking spot, it doesn’t matter. Recent battles, specifically those in the playoffs, between the Predators and the Ducks have made their games, even regular season ones, must-see TV.
The Western Conference Final between the teams was everything you wanted both on the ice as well as off of it, punctuated by heated battles between Nashville’s Ryan Johansen and Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler. Then, Johansen led the war of words, saying Kesler always had his stick in his opponent’s groins and insinuating that even Kesler’s family and friends don’t like watching him play.
The two Ryans have the kind of animosity that resembles the hate that causes Taylor Swift to write songs about exes she feels have wronged her.
Due to offseason hip surgery, Kesler missed the first 37 games of the season, meaning Thursday was the first time he squared off against Johansen since last May’s Game 4, after which Johansen required emergency surgery due to compartment syndrome of his left thigh.
But nearly two-thirds of the way through Thursday night’s game, there were just two minor penalties called. Shortly after that second penalty, an interference given to Calle Jarnkrok, Austin Watson scored a shorthanded goal to make it 3-0 in Nashville’s favor. On the ensuing faceoff between Kesler and Johansen, the puck dropped and the gloves immediately followed. The bout ended quickly, with Kesler landing a couple of punches before the players went to the ice and were separated by the linesmen.
With sticks nearby, it appeared that Johansen may have stepped on a stick before falling.
“Was that what it was?” he asked. “I hope so because I went down pretty easy. We’ll go 1-0 Kesler.”
With just over a minute remaining in the period, the combatants were sent to their respective dressing rooms. On his way to the Anaheim room, Kesler put both hands up to his face, insinuating that Johansen turtled during the scrap.
Johansen said that Kesler had been after him to fight since the start of the game.
“He was asking me to fight for two straight periods,” Johansen said. “It was time to stand up for me and not back down from him.”
Johansen scored Nashville’s second goal of the game, and was just an assist shy of the famed Gordie Howe hat trick. He achieved the milestone on Viktor Arvidsson’s late third period goal.
“I don’t know if Gordie would be too proud of that fight,” Johansen said. “It’s important that we got the win.”
In his postgame press conference, Predators coach Peter Laviolette was proud of the effort of his top-line centerman.
“He can take care of himself,” Laviollette said. “He had a great game. What did he have, a fight, a goal and an assist? That’s old school.”