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Niklas Hjalmarsson returns as Coyotes fall to Penguins in shootout

Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shoots the puck on goaltender Adin Hill #31 of the Arizona Coyotes during the second period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on January 12, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The long-awaited return of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was perhaps the biggest development from the Arizona Coyotes’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.

“It was fun coming into the locker room and see my jersey hanging in the stall next to [Oliver Ekman-Larsson], so I felt right at home,” Hjalmarsson said. “I was a little nervous before the game, too. … It’s a long time ago I was as nervous as today.”

That, and the fact that Hjalmarsson evidently became an offensive playmaking threat while he was sidelined for 43 games with a lower-body injury.

Hjalmarsson’s nifty backhanded assist from along the wall was the primary feed on Derek Stepan’s third period goal, which gave the Coyotes a lead for a while and helped force overtime.

“I think it surprised [Stepan] a little bit,” Hjalmarsson said. “Usually, I’d say 99 out of 100 I’d rim the puck there, but that one time I squeeze it by them there and Step’ was in a good spot.”

The goal had a chance to be the game-winner in what was only the fifth game of the season for Hjalmarsson.

“I was happy for him,” Stepan said. “I think like [head coach Rick Tocchet] said, he’s been itching to get back, and rehab’s never fun. You kind of go through ebbs and flows of wanting to get back and what your body’s allowed to do. I know he’s really excited to just get back around the guys and going through kind of the pre-game stuff.

“Obviously you talk to everyone that’s been around him, we all love him, and we were so happy that he’s back. And for him to make a big play like that in the third is awesome.”

For the Coyotes to have survived without Hjalmarsson for so long — flirting back and forth with first place in the division without a critical defender — is significant. Equally significant is to add a player of his caliber at this juncture of the season.

“He’s loud on the bench, he communicates, he yells, he screams, he talks,” Tocchet said. “He adds that juice on the bench, which we need. If there’s a bit of a lull, you hear him. He’s talking. And obviously his play does the talking, too. So he was solid for us tonight.”

“He battles extremely hard,” Stepan said. “Obviously on the PK, he does a lot of great things for us, and shot-blocking categories and all that stuff that Hammer does. But his leadership’s good. He’s able to talk us through things in between periods and get our group on point. He’s just such a big piece.”

THE GAME ITSELF

The Coyotes’ play through two periods on Sunday against the Penguins didn’t portend well for moving into first place.

But a 4-3 Coyotes loss in the shootout was enough to earn a point and tie for first in the Pacific Division (although fellow first-placeholder Calgary has played one fewer game). That’s a good compromise for Arizona given the way things went early on.

“I thought our game early-on was kind of all over the place, and I really liked the way we responded,” Stepan said. “We were able to grab a hold of it a little bit and make a real strong push. There was two points there, we come out with one and that’s something that in the shootout, you’d love to get the second one, but I liked our response to maybe a slower start.”

The Coyotes and Penguins combined for just eight shots on goal in the first period, and then Arizona was out-shot 22-7 in the second period (partly because of two Pittsburgh power plays).

“We hung in there,” Tocchet said. “We knew the legs weren’t going to be there early-on, it’s a tough trip we came back from. But I liked our response in the third. I thought [Taylor] Hall and [Conor] Garland supplied that. They had a lot of energy for us tonight.”

Despite the momentum swings in the game, the score was 1-1 after one period and 2-2 after two periods. It was 3-2 Coyotes for 5:30 of the third, but a late goal forced overtime and the shootout. The shootout went eight rounds, and Teddy Blueger’s goal decided the game.

In regulation, the Coyotes got goals from Garland, Hall, and Stepan. Pittsburgh’s Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist and Brandon Tanev scored, in that order.

Adin Hill was in goal for Arizona, filling in as both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta were injured. Hill made 31 saves on 34 shots faced and performed well in the shootout, only allowing two goals in the eight rounds. Tristan Jarry made 24 saves for the Penguins.

“I thought [Hill] battled,” Hall said. “He’s a big goalie. He stays calm, especially in some of those scrambles. There was a couple shifts there where we got hemmed in, and you don’t really realize it, but every shot attempt, that goalie’s reacting and going to his butterfly and getting up, that’s a tiring thing to do. So for him to hold his ground and really give us a chance to win, that’s huge. That’s all you can ask for from your goalie.”

QUICK HITS

— Sidney Crosby, who has been sidelined for some time with an injury and has played only 17 games this year, did not play Sunday for Pittsburgh. He is, however, nearing return according to multiple reports. He traveled with the Penguins to Arizona.

— Garland’s first-period goal on Sunday was the Coyotes’ first since Lawson Crouse’s empty-netter on Tuesday in Florida. The Coyotes were shut out in two consecutive games after that, so they went a span of 135 minutes and 11 seconds between goals.


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