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Mental Fortitude Carries Johansen, Predators to Victory

The Predators’ mettle last night put them up 2-1 in the Western Conference Final.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m not here to make friends.”

Ryan Kesler’s response Tuesday morning to comments made about him by Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen sounded like the words of a cool, collected individual.

Meanwhile, pundits around hockey were asking if Kesler had successfully gotten under Johansen’s skin. Not only was Johansen being dominated in the face-off dot by Kesler in games one and two, but Johansen looked visibly rattled. The constant sticks by Kesler to Johansen’s groin and questionable hits, including one where Kesler appears to have thrown an elbow to Johansen’s head, appeared to wear Johansen down, leading to a high sticking penalty off of a face-off.

After the game, Ryan Johansen gave perhaps one of the most honest interviews that a NHL player has delivered all season, calling Kesler out on his antics. Perhaps it’s because hockey players seem to always give “the right answers” in interviews, but the response to Johansen’s comment by the hockey community was one of laughter.

Is Kesler under Johansen’s skin? Is Johansen really that frail? Don’t the Predators know that this is how playoff hockey is played? (hint: it shouldn’t be).

A narrative appeared that Kesler was dominating the JOFA line of Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Arvidsson. Kesler responded to Johansen’s comments in a cool, collective manner. People began asking if the Predators were in trouble.

However, the Predators and Johansen never were in trouble, and proved it again Tuesday night in their 2-1 comeback effort against the Anaheim Ducks and Ryan Kesler.

Being down a goal going into the third period, the Predators were facing the prospect of losing two consecutive games for the first time all playoffs and the first time since April 4th. While some may point to that lack of losing games as a sign that the Predators haven’t faced adversity, it also means that the Predators are just playing phenomenal hockey right now.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators bench reacts after defeating the Anaheim Ducks in game three of the Western Conference Final of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In coming back from the one goal deficit, the Predators put the puck in the net not twice, not thrice, but four times in the period. After Filip Forsberg scored the tying goal, the Predators scored twice within eight seconds, just to have both goals called off for goalie interference and putting the Predators on the penalty kill. Nevertheless, they persisted, and Roman Josi managed to score the game winner off of a shot that rebounded off of a screen by Victor Arvidsson. It marked the first time all playoffs that the Ducks entered the third period with a lead and lost.

If that isn’t the Predators overcoming adversity, I don’t know what is.

Moreover, despite being terrible all regular season in the 3v3 overtime format, the Predators have yet to lose an overtime game this postseason, with one of those wins coming against the Chicago Blackhawks in a game where the Predators, down 2-0, scored three unanswered goals to win.

Meanwhile, Ryan Johansen absolutely dominated Ryan Kesler and the Ducks in game 3.

However, the truth is that Johansen has had Kesler’s number all series long. For supposedly operating a shutdown line, Kesler has failed miserably at his job. In game 1, Johansen rocked a +14 corsi to Kesler’s -13. While Kesler has an assist as his only point this series and is +0, Johansen has one goal, three assists, and is +3. Letting your marked man score four points over three games sounds like a terrible job done.

But hey, Kesler is dominating Johansen in the face-off circle, right? Not last night. While Kesler certainly had Johansen’s number the first two games, Johansen won five of seven draws against Kesler, winning 71% of their draws.

Yes, it was rare that Ryan Johansen called out Kesler for his antics post-game 2. That doesn’t happen in this hyper-sensitive era of interviewing, where readers love to overreact to the smallest comment by a player. However, it’s also unreasonable to think that a player who gives bland, “proper” answers thinks merely those thoughts. In a way, Johansen’s comments on Kesler showed mental strength. I don’t care who hears this, I think what he’s doing is bogus and I’m going to let everyone know it. In today’s media era, calling out an opponent like that takes some guts. Everyone is going to compare the two for the rest of the series. Johansen took the spotlight and put it squarely on himself and Kesler. And what did Johansen do? He performed and was unquestionably the better player.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Anaheim Ducks
Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen (92) scores a goal on Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (36) during the first period in game two of the Western Conference Final of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Honda Center.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

These Predators are not a stoic team by any means. For the past few seasons, it’s been clear that the angrier they get, the better they play. Whether it's the pure hate in James Neal’s eyes after scoring a goal or it's Johansen having a huge grin on his face whenever he’s chirping an opponent on the ice, this team feeds off of energy.

That lack of stoicism irks a lot of the hockey community who’d rather talk about a player who politely answers questions with the word “obviously” than a dynamic player who, God forbid, sings along to a song during warm-ups to get loose and relaxed. This refusal to maintain the old-school status quo gives the Predators and Ryan Johansen this lable of lacking mettle, that they don’t have the mental fortitude to win games.

Unfortunately for those criticizing the mental fortitude of Johansen and the Predators, their on-ice play is proving them all wrong.