Growing pains evident early in Coyotes’ 2017 season
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It took just two games for drunken early excitement to give way to sobriety. Coach Rick Tocchet’s desire to push the Coyotes north is going to take time — on the ice and in the standings.
Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt scored with 1:12 left in regulation and Golden Knights forward James Neal scored at 3:46 of overtime as the NHL’s newest team improved to 2-0 with a 2-1 win over the Coyotes on Saturday in the home opener at Gila River Arena.
It was the second straight game in which the Coyotes (0-1-1) blew a third-period lead and it underscored the difficulty this mix of new and young players faces as it tries to end a five-season playoff drought.
“We’re preaching it, but we’re going to have to keep working at it,” Tocchet said. “It’s almost like everybody is playing a wide game instead of supporting the puck and we’ve got to get better at it. You can’t win in this league that way.”
The Golden Knights are the third expansion team to start their inaugural season 2-0, joining the Oakland Seals (1967-68) and Los Angles Kings (1967-68). Their win over the Coyotes was no fluke.
Vegas outshot Arizona 42-28, and once the Coyotes took a pair of penalties just past the midpoint of the second period, Vegas poured it on, looking for the equalizer after Tobias Rieder’s early-first period goal gave the Coyotes a 1-0 lead.
“I thought we played a hell of a game tonight,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “We had a lot of shots and we competed and we battled hard and now we get rewarded at the end of it. We found a way again.”
Vegas’ rally spoiled an outstanding debut for Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta, who missed the season opener in Anaheim with what he called a spasm. Raanta made 40 saves and 18 of those came in the second period, including a breakaway stop on Knight’s forward Jonathan Marchessault and a post-to-post stop on forward Erik Haula.
“He was great,” Tocchet said. “He kept us in the game for some stretches in the second [period]. I don’t think they had a ton of grade-As, but I know when they did, Antti was superb.”
The Coyotes were close to posting their first win of the season when Neal sent a wrist shot toward the net from the high slot. Raanta made the initial save but when Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson tried to clear the rebound, he pushed it to Schmidt at the far post. Schmidt snapped the puck under defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and into the net with 1:12 left in regulation.
Neal scored his third goal of the season off a feed from David Perron 3:46 into overtime.
“There’s one minute and 12 seconds between two points and that. It’s tough,” Raanta said. “I felt really good at the start. You kind of felt like you can keep on going the whole night but we came up a little bit short.”
That’s where the Coyotes are right now: still a little short of winning consistently in the NHL, still a little early in what the organization understood was going to be a difficult process.
“I know we’re all disappointed,” Tocchet said. “It’s just that we have to have that resiliency when a team makes a push to be able to stay with the system and keep pushing. Don’t fall back. Have that swagger. It’s something that we’re going to have keep working on.
“Our mentality doesn’t change. Some of our mindset during the game has to change.”