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In Defense of Ryan Johansen

With a 3-1 lead and seven minutes to go against the Dallas Stars on Sunday night, the Nashville Predators really didn’t need to take a penalty, but they did. Social media lit up almost instantly with takes about the penalty, the penalty taker, and the circumstances surrounding it.

The penalty was a crosscheck. The guilty party was Ryan Johansen. It happened in the flurry of activity immediately following an ugly hit by Jason Dickinson on Roman Josi that looked a lot like boarding and had the Predators captain’s head slammed against the spot where the boards meet the glass. The contact left Josi bloodied and enraged as he was being cleaned up on the bench after the whistle finally sounded. His rage, of course, came from the fact that the whistle had been blown for Johansen’s retaliatory crosscheck, not the boarding Josi endured.

Of course, on the resulting power play, the Stars scored to draw within one, and ultimately wound up tying the game with the goalie pulled for the extra skater. While the Predators wound up winning in a shootout (on the strength of a Roman Josi shootout goal, even), many have argued that overtime would not have been necessary if Johansen hadn’t sent his team to the penalty kill.

This may be true, but I feel Johansen still did the right thing—or at least that what he did was better than nothing. Here’s why:

Josi’s frustration and anger were merited based on this incident alone. However, this is just part of a growing issue that has reared its ugly head over the last few Predators games, going back to the last game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 2nd.

It’s important to bear in mind that skill hockey players themselves have talked about the effect on morale of having someone who’s prepared to drop the gloves. This is both in general, the idea of having an enforcer on the roster to create space, and in specific, in any postgame interview with a player who had a teammate “stick up for them” after a questionable hit. Skill players generally have praise for any trade for or signing of an enforcer, and any player asked about a teammate who fought for them is appreciative—or outright enthusiastic—about the fight.

Whatever one’s personal beliefs about the ethics of fighting in hockey are, right now the players—the guys on the Predators’ roster—grew up watching a game where the narrative is that sometimes, you don’t leave it up to the referees and the Department of Player Safety. Sometimes, you go looking for a little mountain justice for your teammates, and you can count on them doing the same for you.

So what’s been happening with the Predators this month?

The first example is the head-to-head contact between Nino Niederreiter and Juuse Saros on March 2nd, which took Saros out of the game and placed him on the IR list. Anyone taking a run at any goalie deserves retribution; this is a given. A good example of this is Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki going after Joel L’Esperance after L’Esperance sent Benning into Pekka Rinne during Sunday’s game against the Dallas Stars. However, taking your goalie out of the game is something else entirely. With Niederreiter, Mathieu Olivier sent him through the bench door with a very hard check, but wound up dropping the gloves with Cedric Paquette as a result. The resulting penalty on both showed the team was willing to fight, but the wrong person received the message.

In the very next game, the first of two against the Florida Panthers, Radko Gudas made two very solid, clean hits on Roman Josi toward the end of the game that led to a retaliative slash by Roman Josi. The slash led to a penalty call just as Filip Forsberg’s shot crossed the goal line, causing it to be waved off. Soon after, Ryan Johansen scored a goal that would have been the tying goal and sent the teams into overtime, where the Predators have been able to shine this season. However, since the Forsberg goal had been called off due to the slash, Johansen’s goal did nothing but narrow the defeat. You may ask why I’m using this example because A) the Gudas hits on Josi were clean, and B) Josi’s retaliation caused a goal to be waved off.

The problem is, Gudas should have never been on the ice. Right before this play, after the last whistle, Gudas drilled Mikael Granlund. It was late enough for Granlund to take offense, but the referees didn’t call it and no one on the team stepped up to make Gudas answer for the late hit. Had someone been willing to drop the gloves, Gudas would have been off the ice. Even if someone had engaged him in some kind of combat, he might not have been as willing to run hard at Josi on the next play. Instead, the message sent by the team was that they won’t take exception to a hit, so hit away. Gudas received that message loud and clear, and the results spoke volumes as the Predators failed to earn a point against Florida in either game.

Due to the proximity to the end of the game, I fully expected the second game to either begin with someone fighting Gudas at puck drop or soon thereafter. However, Gudas was allowed to play for 55 minutes without having to answer for his actions the night before. By NHL standards, between Josi’s status as captain and Josi’s concussion history, that’s a failure. The closest anyone got was Nick Cousins, who had a half-hearted fight against Gudas with the game already out of hand. It was more out of frustration with the current score than the result of anything from the previous game.

The result is three games in a row where opponents took liberties or the team failed to make someone answer for those liberties, setting the scene perfectly for the game against Dallas. Jason Dickinson received the message loud and clear and savagely boarded Roman Josi.

When the referees failed to do their job, someone had to step up and do something. In this case, it was Ryan Johansen. A crosscheck wasn’t the right thing, by either the rulebook (which forbids retaliation at all) or the unwritten enforcers’ code (which demands a fight). But in the absence of real action, someone did something. More needed to be done, but his crosscheck was a start—a step in the right direction. Of course, the original argument is that Johansen doesn’t need to take that penalty at that time.

And while, yes, it wasn’t the best timing for that particular game, in the grand scheme of the season, with the Predators already down several key contributors, it couldn’t wait. Failure to respond in four out of five games would only send the message that everyone is on their own out there. For a team that’s struggled to define its identity and with morale, that would have been much worse.