The Arizona Coyotes were back in action just one day after a thrilling shootout victory over Colorado, but their luck ran out against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
The Flames jumped on the Coyotes from the very beginning, outshooting them 50-28, and their high-flying, potent offense was simply too overwhelming from start to finish en route to a 4-2 win.
The Coyotes have lost six of their last seven games heading into the All-Star break, and lead the league-worst Montreal Canadiens by just three points. Here’s what we learned following Wednesday’s loss to the Flames.
Flames’ Offense Swarms Coyotes
The Coyotes put themselves in a tough spot right out of the gate, as Lawson Crouse was called for slashing just 53 seconds into the game. Though Arizona technically killed the penalty off, the Flames scored just five seconds after it expired.
Though the Coyotes battled back and tied the game twice, Calgary’s firepower proved to be too much to overcome en route to the 4-2 loss. It was clear that Arizona steadily improved throughout the game — they gave up 26 shots in the first period, 16 shots in the second, and eight in the third — but a few missed opportunities in the third period were simply too costly.
“We did not have a good start, and they had a good start,” head coach André Tourigny said after the game. “The first period, they were all over us, it was a grind, and then after, we got better throughout the game, but the damage was done in the sense that they wore us down a little bit in the first.”
Alex Galchenyuk scored his second goal in as many nights.
Forward Liam O’Brien, who leads the league in both penalty minutes and major penalties, added to both categories in the loss after picking up a five minute major for fighting Flames defenseman Erik Gudbranson after delivering a clean hit in the first period. O’Brien, who was a little scuffed up but no worse for the wear after the game, has been the Coyotes’ muscle all season long.
He made it clear he won’t back down when challenged, even if the opposition refuses to accept the same challenge later in the game.
“I made a big hit, he asked to go, and I answered the bell, so it is what it is,” O’Brien said. “Funny thing is, same thing happens on the other side, buddy doesn’t answer the bell. It’s a little questionable.”
Vejmelka Steps Up Again
Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka was the star of the show, stopping 46 of the 50 shots he faced to help keep them in the game. His presence was especially critical early in the game, when the Flames ran the shot total up to 26 shots in the opening frame. For reference, Arizona finished the game with 28 shots.
That effort was not lost on defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who finished the game with one assist.
“If Veggie doesn’t stand on his head, then [the game] is probably not manageable,” he said. “I don’t know how many shots they finished with, but too many ‘Grade A’ [chances].”
Vejmelka has had quite a start to his North American hockey career. The 25-year-old goaltender is 6-18-1 with a 3.39 goals-against average (GAA) and .903 save percentage (SV%) in his first NHL season, and has stepped up this season when Arizona has needed him most.
“He’s been unbelievable,” O’Brien said. “He’s just so mature for a guy that’s never played in the National Hockey League until this year. Not just the way he carries himself on the ice, but off the ice, as well.
“It’s been extremely impressive, I think, for everybody.”
“Veggie,” along with Scott Wedgewood, have provided consistency between the pipes for a team that had major question marks in net heading into the season. Presumed starter Carter Hutton has played only three games this season, but the Coyotes have managed quite well with the Vejmelka/Wedgewood tandem.
Players Head Into Well-Deserved Break
While Clayton Keller, who’s currently on a six-game point streak, heads to Las Vegas as the Coyotes’ representative for the All-Star game, the rest of the team will enjoy a little time off, as their next game is Tuesday, Feb. 8 at Vancouver.
It’s been a tough road for Arizona to this point, though not totally unexpected in the throes of a “scorched earth” rebuild. Chychrun said the break will give the team an opportunity to reset itself, and head into the second half prepared for the home stretch.
“I’m excited for the break, I think we all need to get away for a little bit and recharge,” he said. “We just need to regroup, recharge, come back, have good energy, and get back to our game.”
Tourigny did not have a chance to return home this past Christmas, so he said he’s going to use the time to see and spend time with loved ones, including his parents and siblings, before returning to work prepared to build on the improvements he saw in the first half of the season.
From training camp to the All-Star break, there’s no doubt the Coyotes have grown much more comfortable in Tourigny’s system, and they’ll look to build on that after the break.
“I think we make way more plays than we did at the beginning [of the season],” he said. “What I really like about our team is the compete level every day. Every practice, every game, the desire to be better, the brotherhood we have in that room. The fun the guys have together, and the desire to fight for each other.”
Fans hoping to catch Keller in the All-Star game can see him in the skills competition on Friday, participating in the accuracy drill, before the actual game festivities begin on Saturday.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.