New year, same problems.
The Arizona Coyotes returned home to Gila River Arena for the first time since Dec. 15 on Tuesday, but their offense was as cold as the recent overnight temperatures in the desert, scoring just one goal en route to a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets avenged a 1-0 loss earlier this season to Arizona, and have now won two straight.
The Coyotes were just never able to get any semblance of momentum going, were heavily outshot, and took penalties at critical times, hampering their ability to ever climb back in the game.
Here’s what to take away before the team hosts the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday.
Coyotes Struggle to Find Any Offensive Rhythm
Arizona limped through much of the first two periods, unable to generate any sort of momentum as the game wore on. They were heavily outshot in the game, 49-27, and spent a a lot of time in the defensive zone, often times looking out of sync. Even so, there were plenty of opportunities to tie the game up late in the game, but they were unable to find the equalizer.
Turnovers didn’t help, either, considering Arizona turned the puck over 11 times while only mustering three takeaways. To be fair, the Jets committed 14 giveaways, but also took the puck away 10 times.
Even with all of that, Gostisbehere managed to pull the Coyotes to within one goal after he sniped a wrist shot past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck 6:41 into the third period. His goal, which came unassisted after he intercepted a Jets exit pass from the zone, was his 22nd point of the season, good for second on the team behind Clayton Keller’s 23.
“We have a lot of defensemen who can move the puck and generate offense, and [Gostisbehere] is the leader in that department,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said after the game. “He has a good shot, and he has good flare offensively as well.”
Keller was also a bright spot for the team, and impressed again on Tuesday with a strong two-way effort. One play in particular stood out, a back check on the Jets’ speedy forward Nikolaj Ehlers, when Keller eliminated what looked to be a surefire breakaway with a stick lift.
“I think I’ve done a good job of hunting pucks down, being relentless, and I saw our guy kind of get beat there,” he said. “[Ehlers] is obviously an unbelievable skater, and I was able to, at the last second, just lift his stick and deny that chance, and that’s something I want to do as much as I can.”
Karel Vejmelka’s Magic is Alive and Well
Here’s one person you can’t blame for the team’s loss: goalie Karel Vejmelka. The 25-year-old netminder made save after save to help keep the Coyotes in the game, but didn’t get the goal support he needed to help Arizona emerge with a win. There’s something in the air when he plays Winnipeg, as he earned his first-career shutout against the Jets in November, and Tuesday’s game was much of the same after he stopped 46 of the 48 shots he saw.
Vejmelka, who had never played North American hockey until he started with the Coyotes this season, is just 2-12-1 in 17 games, including 15 starts, but has been starved for goal support in most of his appearances. Tuesday was his first start since taking the loss on Dec. 11 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and he had allowed 12 goals in his last 64 shots faced, spanning two games.
He certainly shook off the rust in a hurry, doing everything he could to keep the Coyotes in the game until the final horn sounded.
“That was good to see Karel play good, he did the same against [Winnipeg] the last time,” Tourigny said. “He was solid again tonight, and he made key saves at key moments, kept us right there, and gave us hope.”
Vejmelka’s 46 saves matched his career high, set against — you guessed it — the Jets back in November.
Special Teams, Penalties Continue to Haunt
It’s been a recurring theme throughout the season, but it doesn’t make it any less true: The Coyotes continue to struggle on both ends of special teams play. Not only did the team fail to score on either of its power-play opportunities (the Jets actually have a penalty kill that’s rated worse than Arizona’s heading into the game), but perhaps even more frustrating than that are the penalties they took at key moments on Tuesday.
The Jets’ game-winning goal, for example, was technically not with the man advantage, however, Pierre-Luc Dubois managed to squeak one by Karel Vejmelka as time was expiring on Ilya Lyubushkin’s hooking penalty. Phil Kessel then took a slashing penalty just two minutes after Gostisbehere’s goal, just as Arizona was starting to generate some progress. Though the Coyotes killed the penalty, any momentum that had just been established went by the wayside.
Against a highly skilled team like the Jets, those mistakes are the difference between a win and a loss.
“They’re a fast hockey club, good in the neutral zone, and they have an unbelievable goalie,” Keller said. “You just try to stick with it, put puck behind them, and try to use our speed as much as we can, and try to break them down.”
Arizona has another chance to generate some progress on the power play on Thursday as well, considering Chicago’s penalty kill isn’t much better at 75 percent. Even so, that’s not the end-all for a team that needs to stay out of the box in order to give itself a chance to win — but it’s a start.
Coyotes to Celebrate Matt Shott’s Life on Wednesday
Though Arizona is back in action on Thursday, the team is hosting a celebration of Matt Shott’s life on Wednesday at Gila River Arena, and all fans are encouraged to attend. Shott, who was the Coyotes’ Senior Director of Hockey Development, passed away at the age of 34 on Dec. 19 after a battle with cancer.
Seating will be available in the lower bowl of the arena, and fans are encouraged to wear their jerseys to support Shott. The ceremony will include both video tributes and speakers.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.