Fireworks were on full display in the desert on Saturday night.
The Arizona Coyotes and Nashville Predators met in a Central Division clash, and though Nashville came away with a 4-2 win at Gila River Arena, there was no shortage of energy from Arizona, either.
In the end, though the Coyotes refused to back down, they were unable to cash in on a plethora of power-play opportunities, and the scoring barrage they experienced Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks dried up in a hurry.
That said, there’s plenty to take away from Saturday night’s contest.
O’Brien, Ladd, & Keller Refused to Be Bullied
It didn’t take long for the Central Division-leading Predators to get on the board, as Mattias Ekholm notched his second goal of the season just 56 seconds into the game. Two seconds later, Coyotes tough guy Liam O’Brien dropped the gloves with Nashville defenseman Mark Borowiecki, which set the tone for the remainder of the night.
That’s how it went on a Saturday, as the teams combined for 25 penalties and 86 penalty minutes, including a bizarre exchange in the third period in which Nashville took a delay of game penalty after refusing to take the ice following a goal by Lawson Crouse. The team believed Riley Nash, making his Coyotes debut after being claimed off waivers earlier in the week, played the puck with a high stick prior to Crouse’s goal, but no call was made on the ice and the play was not reviewable.
Arizona, as it has done all season, refused to go away quietly, and ultimately put itself in a position to hang with the Central Division leaders. Clayton Keller started the rally early in the third period, first winning a face off in the Predators’ zone before zipping in past the defense and banking a shot of Predators goalie Juuse Saros.
Shortly thereafter Predators forward Yakov Trenin took a few post-whistle shots at Keller before teammate Andrew Ladd stepped in to defend his teammate, delivering a few uppercuts that ultimately earned him 17 minutes worth of penalty time: two for instigation, five for fighting, and a 10-minute game misconduct.
“It’s a good message for our group,” Ladd said. “It’s a good message for other teams that we will stick up for each other, and I was trying to set that tone.”
Ladd finished the game with 19 penalty minutes, including a two-minute interference minor in the first period. That was perfectly fine with Tourigny, who hopes the young players on the team have taken notice.
“Character, when you have it, you cannot take it for granted, because when you don’t have it, you miss it dearly,” he said. “I think a leader like that, for our young guys to follow, is priceless.”
Clayton Keller is Putting the Team on His Back
Keller’s leadership stems beyond his third period goal, his 12th of the season, and it showed time and time again as the game wore on. Not only was he creating opportunities for his teammates, but his hustle and creativity generated a number of scoring chances to help keep the Coyotes in the game. He finished the game with 19:57 time on ice and seven shots while winning both of the face offs he took in the game.
Keller’s performance has continued to improve throughout the season, and Tourigny has taken notice.
“I often say, ‘When a guy’s a leader, everyone knows he’s a leader,'” Tourigny said. “The fans know he’s a leader, the owner knows he’s a leader, the GM knows he’s a leader, the coach knows, his teammates know — everybody knows.
“Everybody knows what Keller is doing in our world. There’s no doubt.”
Forward Lawson Crouse has also had a huge impact this season, and his ninth goal of the year, which the Predators spent so long protesting that they ultimately earned a delay of game penalty, cut Nashville’s lead back to two. Despite a few more opportunities in the back half of the third period, the team was unable to claw any closer, but Crouse’s performance had already left its impression on both sides of the ice.
“He’s a big body, and he’s physical,” Tourigny said about Crouse. “There were a lot of emotions in the game, and it’s good to see your big boy show up like that, compete, and be tough to play against.
“He disturbed the opponent. They were all over him because he was tough to play against, and that’s why we like him.”
Coyotes Unable to Repeat Power-Play Magic
The Coyotes’ power play, which scored twice in Thursday’s win over the Chicago Blackhawks, disappeared again on Saturday, as the team went 0-for-6 with the man advantage, including an abbreviated 5-on-3. The team missed perhaps its biggest opportunity to cash in immediately following Crouse’s third period tally, but Arizona was unable to cash in, and it was ultimately cut short after forward Christian Fischer was whistled for delay of game following a hand pass on an offensive zone face off.
The Coyotes generated a few chances after goalie Karel Vejmelka was pulled for the extra attacker, but ultimately couldn’t get anything else past Saros.
The team’s power play had moved up to 26th in the league prior to Saturday’s game, but its 0-for-6 effort drops the power play from 15.85 to 14.77 percent on the season.
On the bright side, Arizona was 5-for-6 on the penalty kill, however, inopportune penalties continue to be a problem for the club. The Coyotes have their work cut out for them on Wednesday, as the Toronto Maple Leafs and their second-best power play arrive in the desert.
Fireworks aside, the Coyotes can hang their hats on a strong effort that saw them ultimately outshoot Nashville 40-29, including 28-10 through the final two periods, but it still wasn’t enough to beat one of the best teams in the league. It’s been a mantra all season, but Arizona continues to push when its trailing in a game, an important trait for a rebuilding club that is still trying to forge an identity midway through the season.
It can start by not falling so far behind to begin with.
“I liked the response after the first period, but to we keep putting ourselves in this position, so for me, it’s ‘How are we getting ahead of this, and not putting ourselves behind the 8 ball?” Ladd said. “It’s got to go from the drop of the puck, right off the first shift, and we need to create that standard of play right off the hop.”
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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.