ANAHEIM, Calif. —The rivalry between Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler is distinguished by its latent enmity. Nobody’s pretending this is a friendly one.
“If I play against him in this series, I’m sure we won’t hug each other on the dot — let’s just say that,” Kesler said Saturday after the Ducks practiced in preparation for Game 1 of the Western Conference final at 2 p.m. Sunday at Honda Center.
Toews and the other members of the Hawks’ veteran core are well aware of how Kesler’s renowned grit can impact a game. Kesler’s battles with Toews and his teammates fueled its share of the antagonism that marked three classic playoff series between the Hawks and Vancouver Canucks in 2009-11. If Dave Bolland were still here, it might only be a matter of time.
“[Kesler’s] a player that you love to compete against,” said Patrick Sharp, one of six current Hawks who participated in all three series vs. the Canucks. “In his younger years — even now — he has a tendency to get under your skin. Competes hard every shift. when the pace is elevated, more competitive, it seems to be [to] his liking pretty good.
“He’s pretty well-rounded, plays in all areas — a tough guy to match up against. I know our side will take pride in competing against him.”
While there won’t be any hugs at the face-off circle, Toews and Kesler have maintained a mutual respect. They both are former Selke Trophy winners as the best defensive forward in the NHL — the 30-year-old Kesler, a three-time finalist, won in 2011, when he scored 41 goals and was a plus-24. The 27-year-old Toews, a two-time finalist (and runner-up to Kesler in 2011), won the Selke in 2013.
“Toews is a good player,” Kesler said. “We match up against each other. When you play the same guy for six, seven games in a row, obviously there’s going to be a rivalry there.”
In 19 games over the three playoff series between the Hawks and Canucks, Toews scored seven goals and 20 points with a minus-3 rating — including six power-play goals with Kesler on the ice. Kesler scored two goals (including an even-strength goal against Toews in 2009) and 11 points with a plus-2. The Hawks won second-round series in 2009 and 2010. The Canucks won in seven games in the first-round in 2011 as the No. 1 seed vs. the eighth-seeded Hawks.
“[Kesler] is definitely a player you respect and challenge yourself against,” Toews said. “Most of all he plays a smart, gritty game defensively. He tries to take other top players off their game. I think our guys know he’s one of those guys we have to be concerned with —try to not let him have an easy time with us and let him play his game too easily.”
That’s a situation, Toews is adept at handling. It’s not a coincidence that the most chippy playoff series of his career — the Hawks (28) and Canucks (34) combined for 62 penalties in six games —is also the one that propelled him to the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010.
After the teams split the opening games at the United Center, the series turned in Games 3 and 4 in Vancouver, when Toews scored eight points in 5-2 and 7-4 Hawks victories that gave them a 3-1 series lead.
The Hawks scored six power-play goals in those two games, with Toews scoring three times and assisting on the other three. Kesler was either on the ice or in the penalty box for five of the six goals.
The following year, Kesler got the better of the battle —he had four assists and was a plus-4 as the Canucks won the series in seven games. Toews, despite scoring a short-handed goal with 1:58 left in regulation to send Game 7 into overtime, had a tough series —he scored just that one goal and four points and was a minus-4 in seven games.
The 6-2, 208-pound Kesler is a worthy adversary for the well-decorated Toews. “He kind of reminds me of Jonny a little bit as a player,” said Patrick Kane, a teammate of Kesler’s on two U.S. Olympic teams, “where he’s kind of that two-way centerman, easy to play with; is always looking to get the puck in your hands, too.”
Kesler, who grew up in Livonia, Mich. in suburban Detroit, was drafted by the Canucks in the first round in 2003 (23rd overall — nine picks after the Hawks drafted Brent Seabrook). Unhappy with the direction of the Canucks after nine-plus seasons, he agreed to waive the no-trade clause in his contract in a prospective trade to the Ducks or Hawks. The Ducks outbid the Hawks — sending 26-year-old center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and their first- and third-round picks in the 2014 draft to Vancouver for Kesler.
Kesler scored 20 goals and 47 points, with a minus-5 rating for the Ducks in the regular season. He has four goals and nine points and is a plus-3 in nine playoff games.
“As a second-line center, he’s as good as there is,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He elevates his game in the playoffs. He’s a money player.Hopefully he can continue what he’s done in the first two rounds in the third round.”
It remains to be seen how much they match up in the conference final in five-on-five play. But Toews and Kesler play on their team’s penalty-kill and power-play units, so it’s inevitable they’ll battle again.
And neither side wants to see things get out of hand emotionally. Kesler in particular has to know that doesn’t work.
“Yeah, they do have a lot of history,” said Ducks forward Corey Perry. “But we’re just looking forward to getting started. We don’t know who’s going to be playing against who, but it’s going to be exciting to watch.”