The Arizona Coyotes entered Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils with some new faces in the lineup.
The result, though, was a familiar one.
Rookies Jack McBain and Nathan Smith both played in their first career NHL game, but the Coyotes ultimately fell 6-2 to the Devils on Tuesday in front of an announced crowd of 8,679 at Gila River Arena. The loss drops the Coyotes to 22-46-5, and their 49 points remain the lowest in the league, two points behind the Montreal Canadiens and three behind the Seattle Kraken. All three teams have nine games remaining on their schedule.
Even after the loss, though, there was optimism abound, as the two newest Coyotes reflected on their first professional hockey game.
Smith, McBain See Plenty of Action in First NHL Game
For the Coyotes, a rookie’s inaugural lap prior to their first NHL game has become a regular occurrence this season. Smith and McBain officially made it 10 players that have suited up for their first NHL game in Arizona this season, and they took the ice together before the rest of the team during warm-ups.
Smith logged 14:02 of ice time on Tuesday, including 2:41 on the power play, and started the night 2-for-2 on face offs before ultimately finishing 2-for-5. McBain, meanwhile, wasn’t far behind with 13:45 time on ice, while spending 1:47 on the penalty kill. He finished the night 4-for-8 on face offs.
Regardless of the outcome, both players realized their dream on the same night.
“It is a dream come true,” McBain said. “It was an unfortunate result, but a game I will remember for sure. It was fun and good.
“Hopefully I’ll build on it.”
Smith, for his part, is much newer to Arizona, having just arrived this week. It’s been a whirlwind for the 23-year-old forward, who competed with Minnesota State for an NCAA national championship this past weekend before suiting up for the Coyotes on Tuesday. He had multiple family members at the game, who were able to experience his first-ever NHL game.
“When I went out there for the first lap, I did see them in the corner, so that was really cool, and pretty surreal to be out there,” Smith said. “It made me realize that this is actually real, you know, so it was a really cool experience.”
McBain’s appearance in the game was a bit more of a surprise, so his family wasn’t able to make it out on short notice. Still, the 22-year-old said there will be family coming to see him during the Coyotes’ upcoming four-game homestand next week.
Nick Schmaltz and Travis Boyd scored for the Coyotes, but the club left a lot to be desired after allowing back-to-back goals in the final minute of the second period, just moments after tying the game at two. Though some of that can be attributed to growing pains, considering just how young Arizona’s roster is, head coach André Tourigny said he expects all of the veterans on the team to step up and play a much more active role as leaders.
“I wanted a little bit more from our older guys, personally,” he said. “I want them more engaged, and I want them to push a little bit more. I think our young guys need role models and leadership.
“I felt our team worked hard, but I wanted a bit more push.”
Smith Had Quick Turnaround, Adjusting to NHL Play
As mentioned above, Smith had a shorter turnaround of the two rookies, playing just one day after signing his two-year ELC with the club. He centered the third line between fellow rookie Matias Maccelli and veteran Andrew Ladd, who he practiced with a day earlier.
Smith said Ladd has been helpful in his first few days as a professional hockey player as he acclimates to life in the NHL.
“I’ve kind of asked him some questions here and there, just what to expect, and just the little things about the game, or about what we’re doing in warm-ups,” he said. “He’s been a good shoulder to lean on so far.”
Tourigny was impressed with the rookie’s performance.
“He moves well out there,” he said. “He can get down on the flank, skate downhill and he had good speed and made good passes. I liked the way he played, did a god job in practice yesterday and today it was the same.
“He played with confidence on the power play, and I think he brings skill to our team.”
Smith, for his part, was thrilled to be part of the Coyotes’ man advantage.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Coming into an organization like this and just being out right into the power play wasn’t something I was expecting, but I’m extremely grateful for it and I’m just trying to make the best of my opportunity.”
McBain Gets First Look After Signing ELC in March
Though Smith had to acclimate almost immediately after completing his collegiate career, McBain has had a little more time to adjust to life in the desert. He signed his ELC in mid-March after arriving in Arizona via trade, but had been sidelined with an ankle injury, so he was busy rehabbing in the lead-up to Tuesday’s debut.
He centered the fourth line on Tuesday between Alex Galchenyuk and Loui Eriksson.
He said his teammates have made the adjustment as easy as possible, all things considered, and he’s got plenty of takeaways heading into the next game.
“It’s not the outcome we wanted as a team, so just looking to sharpen some areas and tune up the game,” McBain said. “Adjusting, like I said, the boys are great with that and made it easy to play.”
Tourigny was impressed enough with McBain’s two-way prowess that he put him on the penalty kill, and was happy with the rookie’s effort.
“[McBain] was really reliable, he played with a lot of urgency, and I like a lot of stuff he did,” Tourigny said. “We played him a lot on the PK, he has a big body, he has a presence out there.”
The Coyotes hit the road for games in Vancouver and Calgary before returning home for a four-game homestand, beginning Monday. Thursday’s game against the Canucks starts at 7 pm MST.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.