The Arizona Coyotes returned home Wednesday after a three-game road trip in Canada, winless in their last six games and looking for a boost within the friendly confines of Gila River Arena.
A night that seemed to be heading towards a celebration, though, turned into utter shock and disbelief in the blink of an eye.
Up 3-2 and on their way to victory, Coyotes All-Star Clayton Keller went into the boards awkwardly at full speed, and was ultimately stretchered off the ice. Arizona coach André Tourigny said after the game Keller was taken to the hospital after the game for further evaluation, and no further update on his condition was available.
It was a stunning turn of events in a game that, to that point, was a wildly entertaining back-and-forth affair.
Keller Stretchered Off After Scary Collision
The game was hotly contested for most of the night until forward Jan Jenik scored his second goal of the game, just over seven minutes into the third period. A few minutes later, though, the mood changed to shock and concern as trainers tended to Keller on the ice.
The 23-year-old forward, who has been on pace for a career year with 63 points this season, was ultimately taken off the ice on a stretcher after being evaluated by the team’s training staff. Though the club went on to score two more goals, the result simply felt insignificant after Arizona lost its leader to a scary injury.
Keller gave a thumbs up as he was leaving the ice, but that gesture did little to comfort anyone in the building, given how severe the injury appeared to be.
“We are all sad to see him, not just get hurt, but being in pain like that, we all feel for him,” Tourigny said. “I think the game is completely irrelevant right now, and our thoughts and prayers are with him right now.”
Keller has been a workhorse for the Coyotes since joining the club on a full-time basis in the 2017-18 season, and has not missed a single game since. This season especially he has stepped up and led by example, at times electrifying the crowd, even with the team in a from-the-ground-up rebuild.
He leads the club in both goals (28) and assists (35), and Arizona was clearly shaken following the scary incident.
““It is never a good feeling seeing a teammate, or an opposing player, getting carted off the ice on a stretcher,” forward Jan Jenik said after the game. “We can only hope he is ok.”
The moment didn’t just have an impact on the Coyotes, either. Sharks forward Logan Couture said after the game that it was hard to regroup after witnessing Arizona’s star forward on the ice in excruciating pain.
“You’re just kind of watching,” he said. “All of your thoughts are on him at that moment. You want to give him his space and respect that, but once that ends you have to regroup, and we didn’t.”
Jenik’s Two Goals Lead The Way
Before Keller’s injury, Jenik helped propel the Coyotes into the lead, and the 21-year-old’s two goals — his first two of the season — ignited a team that was 0-5-1 in its last six games. His first tally came courtesy of a Sharks turnover behind the net, and Phil Kessel corralled the puck and found Jenik, who one-timed it past San Jose netminder James Reimer.
Jenik’s second goal of the game was also his fourth career tally, all of which have come against the Sharks. He has four goals in seven career games.
“We have a great development in Arizona here, in Tucson, there’s great people around it, and they help us a lot,” he said. “I feel like every day I’m a better person, just because of them.”
Nick Ritchie, who was playing on a retooled first line with Nick Schmaltz and Keller, tallied his eighth goal in 16 games with the Coyotes, this after recording only two in 33 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this season. The 26-year-old has settled into a groove since arriving in the desert, and his net-front presence has had a major impact with the club.
Barrett Hayton scored late in the third to make it 4-2, while Nick Schmaltz notched his 20th of the season after the Sharks pulled Reimer for the extra attacker.
Vejmelka Stands Tall Yet Again
Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka, starting in his sixth straight game, was strong yet again. He turned aside 39 of the Sharks’ 41 shots, including a critical third-period sequence that saw him make a set of sprawling saves to help keep the game tied at two. Jenik scored moments later to put Arizona ahead for good.
Scott Reedy and Brent Burns scored for the Sharks, who lost for the second time in three games. The game was Vejmelka’s fourth win in which he’s recorded at least 40 saves, and the 25-year-old goalie now joins Igor Shesterkin (2019-20), Carter Hart (2018-19) and Patrick Lalime (1996-97) as the only rookies to record that many 40-save wins in a season.
Still, it was hard, if not impossible, to focus on anything other than Keller after the game.
“Well, it’s not your best player, he’s a human being,” Tourigny said. “To see him in pain like that, a guy who cares as much as him. He is a huge leader on our team, and he competes a lot. Seeing him in pain like that is what hurts.
“The mood of the team right now is really just shocked.”
Arizona is back in action at home on Friday against the Anaheim Ducks. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 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.