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The home opener was going so well. Clayton Keller was doing his usual thing against his hometown team, the Coyotes weren’t allowing many chances in front of Carter Hutton and the power play was clicking.
When Lawson Crouse scored just five seconds after Pavel Buchnevich’s match penalty for headbutting him had expired to give the Coyotes a 2-1 lead early in the second period, it really looked like Arizona might record its first win of the season in front of an energetic crowd at Gila River Arena on Monday.
But Justin Faulk tied the game moments after Hutton robbed Ryan O’Reilly on the doorstep and the Blues’ goals came in staccato fashion for the rest of the second period. St. Louis scored five goals in a span of 5:07 – the third-fastest five goals in franchise history – to turn a one-goal deficit into a four-goal lead after two periods.
The game was over despite a spirited Coyotes rally early in the third period.
“We had four, five shifts in a row where we were not there mentally and that’s not us. We can not do that,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “We have a good group of hard working players who can play tight together and we showed it during that game. We did a lot of good things, but if we don’t stay relentless, that’s what happens.”
Before that stretch, there was a lot to like about the Coyotes’ game.
“That’s why I am frustrated,” Tourigny said. “I felt we did a lot of good things. We did enough to be happy about ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s the NHL. It’s the best league in the world. You can not have that kind of five minutes when you play against a team that just won the Stanley Cup three years ago.”
Here are five takeaways from a 7-4 loss that dropped the Coyotes to 0-2-1.
The disastrous stretch of the second period that doomed the Coyotes’ chances began with a tripping penalty against Andrew Ladd. The Blues got some momentum off of the ensuing power play.
2-2: After stopping O’Reilly with a terrific left-pad save in tight, Hutton got tangled up in front of the net with Brandon Saad and lost his stick. When the puck squirted out to Faulk, Antoine Roussel went out to challenge him, but he made the mistake of leaving his feet, thinking he was blocking a shot. Faulk danced around him and beat Hutton through traffic to the short side to tie the game.
3-2: It wasn’t hard to diagnose this one. As Ryan Dzingel circled his net under pressure from Vladimir Tarasenko, he tried to pass to Ladd on the left wall. Instead, he put the puck right on Jordan Kyrou’s tape. Kyrou took three strides and ripped a snap shot over Hutton’s glove hand.
4-2: Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and Nick Schmaltz all had the puck on their sticks with chances to clear the zone, but none of them could. Instead, Klim Kostin slammed it home and the wheels were off the bus.
5-2: Poor defensive-zone coverage left Kostin all alone in the slot. Anton Strålman was unable to get a stop behind the net, Chychrun was unable to stop the net-front pass that went right through him and Dzingel and Ladd did not help out the net-front area, leaving Kostin all alone to bury his second goal in 47 seconds.
6-2: Conor Timmons’ failure to get the puck deep led to a bad shift change while the puck was in the neutral zone and high in the Blues’ zone. Racing from the bench to cover the play, Shayne Gostisbehere overplayed the rush and slid away from the net. With O’Reilly driving hard to the net, Loui Eriksson stayed with him, allowing Kyrou to walk to the front of the net and beat Hutton.
“We have this bad habit that we become individuals after we fall behind,” Gostisbehere said. “That’s just not how you’re going to get wins in this game.”
Hutton’s horrific night
Tourigny had planned all along for Hutton to start the home opener against his former team, and the one with which he enjoyed his greatest career success. When asked after the morning skate how he could put an eight-goal outing in the season opener at Columbus behind him, Hutton shrugged it off.
“I’ve played a lot better and I’ve played worse,” he said. “It’s just one game, little things. You make adjustments, you pull the good stuff from it and you move on, you get back to work.”
Until the second-period onslaught, Hutton looked composed and ready to move past that forgettable Blue Jackets game, but when Kyrou capped off the five-goal, second-period outburst, Tourigny pulled Hutton in favor of Karel Vejmelka.
After the game, Keller, Gostisbehere and Tourigny all rallied around their goaltender, putting the blame on the team for hanging him out to dry.
“It’s embarrassing,” Keller said. “Huts doesn’t deserve that. That’s on us.”
A review of the film reveals a host of mistakes and defensive breakdowns, but the simple truth of NHL goaltending is that your goalie has to bail you out of some of those situations and Hutton has not done that through two starts.
In a little less than five periods of play, Hutton has allowed 14 goals on 57 shots for a .702 save percentage and an 8.75 goals against average. Both are the worst marks in the NHL among the 47 goaltenders who have played so far this season.
The Coyotes’ rebuild plans notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine Tourigny throwing Hutton out against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. The prudent move might be to give Vejmelka another look while Hutton works this week with goalie coach Corey Schwab to try to stabilize his game.
Hutton is going to play more games this season. No matter what the Coyotes’ long-term plans are, they have to find a way to build some belief in their veteran goaltender, instead of crushing his confidence.
Keller or killer?
Before the game turned sideways, Keller continued his uncanny run against the Blues, the team for which he rooted while growing up across the Mississippi River in Swansea, Illinois.
Keller cleaned up a rebound of a Phil Kessel shot on an early first-period power play to stake the Coyotes to a 1-0 lead.
He added an assist on Christian Fischer’s goal to give him seven goals and 18 points in 20 career games against the Blues. That is his most goals and most points against any NHL opponent.
When the season began, I wondered how the rebuild might impact Jakob Chychrun, the one player from last season’s team who is certain to be a part of the team’s future plans. It’s easy to say that Chychrun’s job is to show up every day and perform, but losing breeds losing and it also erodes confidence.
Adding to that challenge is the fact that Chychrun has not been a part of the Coyotes’ top power play unit through three games. With Shayne Gostisbehere running things up top and Phil Kessel manning the left flank, the unit is clicking at a 20-percent success rate, and it has also scored a few goals just after power plays have expired, adding to that success rate. It’s hard to argue with those results.
At the same time, the power play was one area where you thought that Chychrun might be able to accumulate points on an offensively challenged team. He still leads the team in average ice time (24:55 per game), but those minutes are coming in 5-on-5 play or shorthanded and he is getting far fewer offensive-zone starts than last season. Through three games, he is ninth on the team in average power-play time on ice at 2:08 per game, and through three games, he has no points and is a minus-7 after going minus-4 on Monday.
Chychrun knew what he was in for this season, but he at least thought that he’d have a couple things to look forward to on an individual basis: climbing the Norris Trophy candidates list and staying in contention for a spot on Canada’s Olympic team. But when Hockey Canada’s selection committee pores over the early-season stats, they won’t find much that impresses about Chychrun’s game.
Clearly, it is not the Coyotes’ concern what happens with Hockey Canada, but it is their concern to manage Chychrun’s confidence and belief in the organization’s plan for the future. Right now, you could argue that the Coyotes aren’t giving Chychrun the respect that probably is due a player who led the league in goals by a defenseman last season; a player who many think will be the next captain of this franchise. He may rise above this challenge, but it bears watching, and it’s worth questioning the Coyotes’ approach on this front.
A cynic might wonder if Kessel’s presence on the top power-play unit in place of Chychrun is the Coyotes’ way of showcasing Kessel for a trade that both sides want. A more conservative analysis might suggest that the Coyotes are trying to get Kessel, a terrific power-play performer throughout his career, up to speed after he missed the entire preseason with a foot injury.
Kessel helped both causes on Monday with two assists, giving him three points in three games. In a fortunate coincidence, there was also an extensive list of scouts in attendance at Monday’s game. I counted 15 on the official list. You could almost imagine GM Bill Armstrong walking that row of scouts and tapping each on the shoulder to make sure they had seen what Kessel had done.
Kessel watch continues.
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