Oh, Ryan White. What a mess he finds himself in today! For the second time in as many starts, White took a brain-dead double minor that ended up costing his team a goal and momentum. The first time, his pointless unsportsmanlike minor broke the game against Ottawa open as the Sens scored two and never looked back. White looked sick to his stomach on the bench, and sat out for three games after that. Last night in Buffalo, Travis Moen's injury opened the door of opportunity for White, who got the second chance Michel Therrien had promised him against the Sabres.
Given his short leash and his previous transgression, White did the worst possible thing he could have done, short of telling Therrien he'd fathered the coach's grandchild. He let annoying Steve Ott goad him into mashing Ott's face into the ice and landed himself another stupid double minor for roughing. Predictably, the Sabres scored almost immediately. The goal put Buffalo within reach and with tired players on their last shift of the game, the Canadiens gave up the tie and, eventually, the point.
White's penalties didn't just cost the team a win. They forced Tomas Plekanec, who's been the best player on the team all year, to play 5:29 tough minutes on the PK. Plekanec is Therrien's go-to penalty killer, but the more he's used in that role, the more his total minutes climb. That's not what you want in a hectic, compressed schedule. The Canadiens need him on offence, not killing dumb penalties all night.
Unfortunately for White, if you play with an edge, you have to play with a smart edge. So far this year, he's been forgetting the smart part. After just getting scratched for the same offence, the patience of the fans and of the coaching staff is wearing dangerously thin. The puck is now in Therrien's end of the ice when it comes to finding a way to deal with White without crushing his confidence. After all, the kid does have his good points, and there's no question about his passion for the game and for winning. This is what he told me last season, while working to recover from hernia surgery:
"Hockey's everything I've ever known and everything I love to do. My
life revolves around it and it always has. Once they take that away from
you...I didn't really know what else to do. I tried to stay around the
rink as much as possible and be a part of the team, but it's tough when
you're not contributing on the ice and you're not going to war with the
guys. It was a tough season in that sense."
If White's having a tough season this year, it's down to his own choices. This is where Therrien's experience as a dad comes in. He'll have to count to ten (or a hundred), talk to White and, eventually, give him another chance. The young player will have to understand he's not on a short leash anymore. He's on a choke chain with a muzzle. There comes a point when a team just can't make room for a guy who makes the kinds of huge mistakes that costs games. White's almost there, but he's not worth discarding just yet.
And, of course, hockey is a team game. One guy's error, no matter how in-your-face dumb, doesn't doom the team to a loss all by itself. Last night, Peter Budaj wasn't very good. Perhaps it's too much to expect a guy who sees game action once every two weeks to be sharp when called upon, but that's essentially the job of a backup goalie in the NHL. So far, Budaj hasn't shown he can fill the role properly and make his teammates feel like he's giving them a chance to win. The tying goal, with two seconds left, would never have happened if Budaj had simply covered the puck in the crease. Carey Price can't play all the games, but with Budaj's play, he may have to play more back-to-backs than he would if his backup were more reliable.
In Budaj's defence, even though some of the goals he allowed were weak, he made some big saves as well. He just needs to stop the soft ones. If he doesn't, the defence changes its style and tends to fall back more to cover for him. (Lucky thing, too, because Raphael Diaz...who's been the anti-White in terms of smart play... pulled a goal right out of the net behind Budaj.) That ends up giving the opposing forwards more room in the offensive zone, and a guy like Vanek can use that to his great advantage.
The other big problem the Habs are facing is the complete dysfunction of last year's first line. David Desharnais is working hard, but he's getting shown up in the defensive side of the game. Max Pacioretty could be still dealing with sluggishness from his emergency appendectomy, although he showed signs of his old self last night. Erik Cole, however, has been nowhere to be seen for most of the season.
It's true Cole has traditionally been a slow starter and he does have a couple of goals this year. Still, ten games in, Cole has rarely shown the drive for the net or tenacious forechecking he did last season. He said before this season even began that he was thinking of retirement because of his disillusionment with the CBA process. He's been playing as though his mind is already on a tropical beach with his kids. Last season, a big reason why that line worked was Cole's powerful presence in the offensive zone. While opposing defencemen backed up to contain him, it created lots of room for Desharnais to put his creativity with the puck to good use. When Cole's trailing the play as he's often been doing this year, Desharnais has to carry the puck a lot, and he's easier to stop than a truck like Cole.
The Canadiens are a work in progress, there's no doubt about that. They have a lot of issues to address, and some of them are bigger than Ryan White. Today, though, the focus and the blame will probably fall on the slumped shoulders of a kid who's showing more enthusiasm than good sense. Yesterday, I talked to former Habs coach and current senator, Jacques Demers. He had some words of advice White would be well served to learn.
"You have to have players who are disciplined," he explained. "I told my players before the playoffs, turn the other cheek. If you get a cheap shot, you don't like it. But don't retaliate, because if you do, you'll be the last guy and you'll get the penalty. Don't put your team in a vulnerable position. I told my players don't be selfish, because it could cost us the game."
White knows that from experience. Now he needs to show it's sunk into his head. He'll get another chance, but it won't be tomorrow.