The Anaheim Ducks’ first-round sweep of the Calgary Flames was aided by the handiwork of Ryan Kesler. Among the league’s most effective irritants, Kesler is a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward, after winning the award in 2011. One of his signatures is his ability to provoke opponents.
“If he loses a face-off, he either crosschecks the guy or slashes him or stares him down,” Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. “You’re getting one of the three. Hopefully just the stare-down.”
After nine seasons with Kesler on the Vancouver Canucks, Bieksa was thrilled to rejoin Kesler when traded to the Ducks in 2015.
“He’s not a fun guy to play against,” Bieksa said. “Even if he is your friend, you still want to kill him.”
Flames forward Michael Frolik said teams “need those kinds of guys.”
He has played much of the season on a line with Matthew Tkachuk, a rookie forward who was called a “pretty dirty player” by Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty.
Tkachuk was suspended two games for elbowing Doughty in the face late in the regular season.
Frolik won the Stanley Cup in 2013 with the Chicago Blackhawks alongside Andrew Shaw, long considered among the N.H.L.’s most infuriating opponents.
“He’s up there, for sure,” Frolik said.
Admiring Shaw’s game from afar and coveting that abrasive element, the Canadiens traded for him last summer and signed him to a six-year contract. In his first preseason game with Montreal, he injured Washington Capitals defenseman Connor Hobbs with an illegal hit before engaging in a fight with forward Nathan Walker, during which he played to the home crowd with a series of emphatic gestures. The sequence earned Shaw 30 penalty minutes, a three-game suspension and the admiration of Canadiens fan.
These efforts to undermine were evident in the first round of the playoffs. The Toronto linemates Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, who were tasked with shadowing Washington’s top line, helped the Maple Leafs take the top-seeded Capitals to six games before being eliminated. Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin referred to Komarov as “kind of a rat.”
That matchup intensified in Game 5 when Ovechkin hobbled off the ice after a first-period hit by Kadri, who received a tripping penalty on the play. Washington scored on the ensuing power play and won the game, 2-1, in overtime, after which Kadri summarized his objective for the series.
“Try to frustrate them as much as possible,” he said. “It seemed like it was working for a bit.”
Dallas Stars forward Antoine Roussel is another player whose hard-nosed style has earned him a reputation.
“You have to be smart about it, but you also have to play your game,” he said. “That’s why the line is hard to find sometimes. Sometimes you’re going to jump over the line. That stuff happens.”
Roussel added: “You look back in the day, Claude Lemieux was one of the best doing that. You need that edge.”
A winner of four Stanley Cups with three teams, Lemieux was the prototypical N.H.L. agitator. The recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1995 as the playoffs’ most valuable player, Lemieux had 80 postseason goals, 10th in N.H.L. history. But he is closely associated with one play as a member of the Colorado Avalanche during the 1996 Western Conference finals. His hit from behind left Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings with multiple facial fractures and incited one of the bloodiest rivalries in recent playoff history.
Enforcers and on-ice bodyguards have since been squeezed out of the game, and some of the league’s most notorious provocateurs have transformed into playmakers. Perhaps no one exemplifies the evolution from rabble-rouser to superstar better than Bruins forward Brad Marchand, who enjoyed a standout 39-goal season and played a crucial role in Boston’s late-season playoff push.
Proving old habits die hard, Marchand earned a two-game suspension on April 6 — the eighth time in his eight-year career he has been either fined or suspended — for a spear to the groin of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin.
Although their objective is typically to get under the skin of opponents, some N.H.L. agitators have proved to be equal-opportunity offenders.
Shortly after his 2014 trade to Anaheim, Kesler began hosting “Between Two Zambonis,” a series of sit-down interviews with teammates and a nod to the comedian Zach Galifianakis’s “Between Two Ferns” series. In one of the first episodes, an interview with the Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who is bald, Kesler donned a pair of sunglasses and remarked, “Your forehead is shiny today.”
Ducks forward Rickard Rakell said of Kesler: “That’s kind of his personality. All the time, you see just small things that he does. He does it in practice, too.”
That personality has helped make Kesler a crucial part of Anaheim’s championship hopes.
“I think he’s a competitive person,” Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said. “He hates to lose. From my standpoint, I’d rather have to tame it down than try to put it in some people.”