Heading into Wednesday’s game at Gila River Arena, the Arizona Coyotes had dropped seven straight. The visiting Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, hadn’t fared much better, with just one win in their last 11 games.
Something had to give.
Chicago scored twice in the first period, Alex DeBrincat scored the game-winner in overtime, and the Blackhawks spoiled Andrew Ladd’s 1000th career NHL game with a 4-3 overtime win over the Coyotes in front of an announced crowd of 11,916 in Glendale. Rookie Nathan Smith also recorded his first-career NHL goal in the loss, marking the second time in as many games he’s recorded a point.
Here’s what we learned on Wednesday.
Andrew Ladd Records Assist in 1000th NHL Game
Wednesday marked Ladd’s 1000th game, which in itself is quite an achievement, but for the 36-year-old, the achievement meant even more considering such a milestone was in doubt as recent as a year ago. He played just 26 games with the New York Islanders in 2018-19, and four in 2019-20, spending most of his time with New York’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, at least when he was healthy enough to play.
After tearing his ACL in 2019 and requiring multiple surgeries to recover, his NHL career was in jeopardy. Ladd played just one hockey game in all of 2020-21, also with the Sound Tigers, and was never able to re-establish himself as an NHL regular until arriving in Arizona.
It was purely a salary dump for the Islanders, who sent three picks along with Ladd, but he has made the most of his time this season on a rebuilding Coyotes team.
“I think when you have a goal that seems like a pretty big summit at the time, and you’re at a pretty low point where you just had two major surgeries, you’re in the minors and I would say most people have a tough time coming back from that,” Ladd said. “So I think just I’m proud of how I handled myself throughout that process.”
His road to 1,000 games included time in Chicago, New York, Carolina, and Atlanta/Winnipeg, where he was the Thrashers’ last captain, as well as the (new) Jets’ first one. He wore the ‘C’ in Winnipeg until getting shipped back to the Blackhawks for the 2015-16 playoff run, though he remained an alternate with both the Islanders and the Coyotes.
Coach André Tourigny heaped praise on the veteran after Wednesday’s game.
“You know, Ladd is exactly what you look for as a coach,” Tourigny said. “He is a leader, he plays hard, he is tough, he can score goals, he can make plays, and he is a winner, being part of (this) game was a privilege, no doubt about it. He really wanted to prove he could play, and what he achieved this year, overcoming an injury and playing though an injury, I think it is a testimony of (Ladd’s) character.”
Ladd has 550 points on 256 goals and 294 assists over his career, and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, having won with the Hurricanes in 2005-06, and again with the Blackhawks in 2009-10.
He recorded an assist on Wednesday — his 550th career point — and has recorded a point in three of his last four games. For him, it was all about his support structure that helped him get back to such a prominent role in the NHL.
“I’m just thankful for the people around me, because your support system allows you to keep going when things are tough, and coming home to my wife and kids and having their support,” Ladd said. “I really had a team of people — from a great physical therapist and mental coach, to working with Adam Oates, and there were some great friends that helped me get back, and family too.
“I think in this all, you think about them and the impact that they’ve had on you to get to this point. Ultimately you don’t get here without the support of great people, so I’m thankful for that.”
Nathan Smith Nets First Career NHL Goal
On the flip side of the career-games spectrum, rookie Nathan Smith recorded his first NHL goal in just his fifth career game, beating Chicago goalie Kevin Lankinen on a rebound from a shot by Phil Kessel. Smith’s goal came halfway through the third period, and cut the Blackhawks’ lead in half. Anton Stralman notched his sixth of the season four minutes later, tying the game at three apiece.
Smith has now recorded a point in two consecutive games, having notched his first career point (an assist) just one game earlier, and the 23-year-old has been very active in all facets of the game throughout that span. He was actually on the same line as Ladd in his first career game, and said at the time he was learning a lot from the veteran.
As far as Ladd is concerned, he’s just paying it forward.
“I was fortunate enough to come into the league with an abundance of veteran players in Carolina that I could, not even ask questions, I think you’re just watching how they conduct themselves, and how they go through all their daily business,” he said. “How I approach the games (now) is I relate them to my kids, as they’re kind of always watching you and always paying attention, and you just want to be mindful of that.”
“Then, obviously being open and honest with them, and trying to help them along, and give them pointers along the way, in my mind is paying it forward for the guys that did that for me when I was young.”
How fitting, then, that the Minnesota State product notched his first-career goal the same night Ladd celebrated his own milestone. He’s is the sixth Coyote to record his first-career goal in the NHL this season.
Coyotes’ Penalty Kill Stands Tall, Rally Falls Just Short
The Coyotes’ effort in the game was admirable, considering they trailed by two twice in the game, and their rally was aided in part by a stellar penalty kill. The Blackhawks were 0-for-6 with the man advantage, and goalie Karel Vejmelka stopped 36 of 40 shots he faced on the night — just one game removed from making 46 saves against the Hurricanes.
“That is two games in a row we have battled back,” Tourigny said. “Today, the start was not good, but between the leadership we had in the room — between the first and the second — and the character of our older players, they really dug in. It was good for our young guys to be a part of (a game like this) so they see how much those older guys dig in.”
Arizona has remained competitive over its last two games despite being heavily outmanned due to injuries, and though Antoine Roussel rejoined the team after being absent since March 7 with a lower-body injury, the Coyotes lost two more players on Wednesday. Forward Nick Ritchie was a late scratch due to an upper-body injury and is listed as day-to-day, while Jay Beagle left the game with a lower-body injury and did not return.
Ironically, it’s those very injuries that have opened up the spots for the team’s younger players in Smith and fellow rookie Jack McBain, and they’re making the most of their opportunities.
Arizona is back in action on Friday against the Washington Capitals. 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.