Another game, another NHL debut for the Arizona Coyotes.
Rookie Bokondji “Boko” Imama played in his first NHL game and goalie Karel Vejmelka made 27 saves, but the Coyotes were unable to find the scoreboard in a 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in front of an announced crowd of 14,053 fans at Gila River Arena on Friday.
Washington’s Conor Sheary scored in the first period, John Carlson added an empty netter, and goalie Vitek Vanecek made 19 saves in the Capitals’ win. The loss was Arizona’s ninth straight, and it remains one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for last place in the league. Both have played 78 games.
Here’s what we learned.
Imama Plays in First NHL Game
Imama made his NHL debut on Friday, and the call-up surprised him a bit, especially considering he’s in the midst of a six-game suspension with the Tucson Roadrunners in the American Hockey League (AHL) . That didn’t impact his ability to play in the NHL on Friday, though, and the 6-foot-1 221-pound forward recorded 4:04 of ice time over five shifts.
The 25-year-old took his inaugural solo skate during the pregame warm-up, and that’s when he said it all set in. He was the 11th Coyote to make his NHL debut this season, and eighth Roadrunner. He was selected 180th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 NHL draft, and played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), ECHL and AHL before getting the call-up for Friday’s game.
“It means everything,” Imama said. “I think it is everyone’s dream to play their first game in the NHL, and I’m just happy that it happened tonight.”
Coyotes coach André Tourigny said Imama’s ice time was reduced on Friday because he had not played in a game since April 9, though Imama did say he stayed in shape and practiced, even when Tucson hit the road earlier this week for Stockton.
Tourigny recognized the significance of Imama’s achievement after Friday’s game.
“Well, I think in his role, especially, we all know it’s not an easy path,” he said. “You know, you really need to battle your way through and make it step-by-step. I coached against him in the [QMJHL], I know him not as an energy jolt, but as a player for a long time, and his progression year after year is tremendous. So, huge achievement for him.”
Imama has experienced multiple racist incidents as he has risen up the ranks of professional hockey, even as recently as early January when San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik was suspended for 30 games “as a consequence of a racial gesture” that he made toward Imama. Hrabik later denied any ill intent, but did not appeal the suspension.
Imama said he hopes his arrival in the NHL can be an example for others in similar circumstances.
“Since Juniors I’ve been getting a lot of messages, you know, from young players, or their parents, that look like me,” Imama said. “I’m sure they’re proud of me back there, for sure I’m going keep on inspiring kids. I think having more players like me, having the chance to achieve their dreams for sure is going to lift all these young kids that are trying to do the same.”
Imama’s family was unable to be in attendance in his debut on Friday, but he does expect them to make the trip for Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues.
McBain Shows Flashes Against a Juggernaut Offense
Rookie Jack McBain was playing in just his sixth NHL game, but has yet to record that elusive first-career goal. He played well on Friday in 13:21 of ice time, and skated fast and physical against one of the best offensive teams in the league. He recorded two shots on goal and seven hits.
He also hit the far-side post on a two-on-one chance in the first period, but the puck bounced back towards Vanacek and out of harm’s way.
“It’s a little bit of ‘learning on steroids’ for him, because he’s playing against Ovie tonight,” Tourigny said. “He’s matched up against Ovie, (Evgeny) Kuznetsov, and (Tom) Wilson, that’s, ‘Welcome to the league, kid.’ You have a week in the league, that’s a little bit of a tough matchup for him, and he played with [Ladd] and [Roussel], and did an unbelievable job all night long against that line.”
McBain centered a line between Antoine Roussel and Andrew Ladd, and also recorded 1:48 of ice time while on the penalty kill. The Coyotes’ PK was perfect on the night, successfully killing off all four of the Capitals’ power plays, but didn’t receive an opportunity with the man advantage all night.
Impressively, Arizona is a perfect 12-for-12 on the penalty kill over its last four games.
Coyotes Mourn Loss of Guy Lafleur
The hockey world mourned the loss of Montreal Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur on Friday after he passed away following a battle with lung cancer, the second devastating loss in as many weeks after New York Islanders legend Mike Bossy died on April 15.
Tourigny, a Quebec native, never met Lafleur during his playing days, but recalled fond memories of meeting the hockey icon when he was younger, and acknowledged the loss of the entire hockey community.
“He was a person of the people, you know, he was humble, talking to everybody, never refused to sign an autograph, and had a picture with just about everybody, it’s unbelievable,” Tourigny said. “He had such a big heart, and everybody you talked to, he’s an honest, straight-shooter, no BS, that’s for sure. He’s an unbelievable human being.”
Imama, who was born in Montreal and grew up a Canadiens fan, paid tribute to both Lafleur and Bossy after the game.
“If you’re a kid from Montreal, there’s no way you don’t know these two guys — rest in peace to these two legends,” he said. “That’s a really sad day for the hockey community, for sure.”
Arizona is back in action on Saturday against the St. Louis Blues. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 pm MST.
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A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.