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Ryan White and the Minnesota Wild’s grit problem

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How last night’s scrape could negatively impact the Wild’s Stanley Cup chances.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche
Ryan White tried to hold Erik Johnson accountable last night, but who’s holding White accountable?
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota may have had nothing on the line in last night’s victory over the Colorado Avalanche, but that didn’t stop things from getting interesting. The Wild fended off the league’s worst team in a close affair, with the help of a controversial call breaking in their favor.

And along the way, we saw a bunch of milestones. Devan Dubnyk got his 40th win of the season. Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter both set career-highs in goals. We even got to see 2016 first-rounder Tyson Jost get his first NHL goal. Good on you, kid.

We also saw some fisticuffs. Avs defenseman Erik Johnson made a hip-check into Jason Pominville, who was in the process of losing his balance. This is an affront that THE GREAT CODE OF HOCKEY demands retribution for.

Luckily for the Wild, Ryan White was there to oblige. You see, you can’t take liberties with the Wild when Ryan White is on the ice. Ryan White just doesn’t allow that sort of malarkey to occur, and when it does, you’d better believe that Ryan White is going to deliver some on-ice justice.

So Ryan White does what every upstanding grinder would do, and immediately goes to the corner to mug, then fight Erik Johnson. Messages were sent, and the Colorado Avalanche decided they didn’t want any part of Ryan White, electing to not breathe on Wild players for the remainder of the game.

Bruce Boudreau made sure to give White his proper due for his pivotal role in the Wild’s victory last night:

This is, of course, garbage. This was a bad fight- the kind that can hurt Minnesota in the playoffs.

Let’s start by watching the sequence of events that led to the fight.

Pominville enters the zone for Minnesota, when 5’10” Sven Andrighetto tries to make a hit to knock Pominville off the puck. Andrighetto doesn’t quite land the hit, but trips up Pominville enough so that he loses balance. Pominville manages to stay upright and get rid of the puck, but Johnson lays the hit on him as he finally succumbs to gravity.

Now, if you’re watching for White, you’ll see him jump Johnson and start the fight. But rewind it, and don’t watch White and Johnson. Watch the puck.

Joel Eriksson Ek retrieved the puck in the opposite corner, then deflected it to Marco Scandella at the point. Scandella then took a shot that went wide in the corner, where White fought for the puck, then...

No, wait. He didn’t try to get the puck. He went to fight Johnson, with no awareness of what else was happening on the ice.

That’s the first problem: The Wild were on the attack. White choosing to fight was therefore a bad choice. Had White decided to defer the retribution for later and hold his position, he would’ve been in good shape to get that Scandella rebound off the boards. With Eriksson Ek cutting towards the net, that could’ve led to a scoring chance, or even a goal.

Instead, the play was whistled dead, the momentum Minnesota had was killed, and White went to the box.

Along with Johnson. And Nino Niederreiter.

White’s fight earned him an extra 2 minutes for roughing, which put his team short-handed in a one-goal game. Considering the score of the game, what was happening around White, and the consequences that followed, it was a dumb fight.

Yet, his coach said of it, “That’s what good teams do.”

That’s what good teams do? Abandon the attack to settle a score? Put themselves at a disadvantage with an undisciplined penalty?

Look, I get it. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a nasty business. The NHL is physical even in games where nothing is on the line, so when the stakes get raised and you’re playing the same team over and over again, the intensity raises. Players skate faster, collide harder, and do whatever it takes to win- playing up to (and over) the edge of fair, clean play. Referees also swallow their whistles, hesitant to change the game by calling a penalty.

You have to be tough to thrive.

Other teams know this- especially the Wild’s likely first-round opponent, the St. Louis Blues. Blues coach Mike Yeo presided over this very Wild team, where the book on Minnesota was to throw bodies at them as often as possible.

And Yeo has a team to do that with. Sporting a giant, physical blue line along with grinders like Ryan Reaves, Yeo- a devotee of physical, gritty, Old Time Hockey- will no doubt send his team to hit the more skilled Wild. And maybe get in their heads. And maybe goad them into putting Vladimir Tarasenko on the power play.

You have to be tough to thrive. But you also have to be poised and composed. You have to have the hockey sense to pick your moments to strike back at edgy play.

And giving up on a scoring chance in a one-goal game isn’t the moment to do that.

Unfortunately, the fans in St. Paul are probably in for a similar instance in the playoffs. Despite being (at best) the 13th-most talented forward on the roster, White’s been a mainstay in the lineup since the Wild acquired him alongside Martin Hanzal. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll suddenly be banished to the press box once the postseason hits.

And the reason why he plays is exactly the reason no one cares about his boneheaded fight last night: He has that intangible quality of grit, and that outweighs any possible negative he brings to the table.

White doesn’t score. He doesn’t drive play. But he’s willing to hit people and he’ll stand up for his teammates. It doesn’t matter what the consequences are from those actions are. It doesn’t matter that he’s made other insanely undisciplined plays that have hurt his team. He’s gritty, and Chuck Fletcher, Boudreau, and the Wild organization can’t quit grit. So White plays.

It didn’t burn the Wild last night, but if they keep White in the lineup, they’d better hope he can play with more awareness and discipline than he showed. Because if he’s going to forfeit scoring chances and take unnecessary penalties against the Blues, that’s going to be a huge problem for them going forward.