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5 takeaways from the Coyotes’ season opener in Pittsburgh

Craig Morgan Avatar
October 14, 2022

PITTSBURGH — We’ve told you about TD Garden’s inhospitably, but PPG Paints Arena has been the Coyotes’ true house of horrors. In 10 previous games at Pittsburgh’s 12-year-old arena, the Coyotes were 1-9 and had been outscored 41-11, so when the schedule makers added insult to injury this season by launching the Coyotes’ stretch of 20 road games in their first 24 in this building, it seemed fitting for a team hoping to pick as high as possible in the talent-laden 2023 NHL Draft.

The Coyotes got off on the right foot in that regard, dropping a 6-2 decision to the Penguins on Thursday. The loss left them with a 0.95 points percentage at PPG Paints; their worst winning percentage at an existing arena in which they have played more than one game (they are 0-1 at UBS Arena, home of the New York Islanders).

The Penguins scored three goals on their first seven shots and the game felt all but over with a little more than five minutes gone in the first period. Jake Guentzel beat JJ Moser to a loose puck in the Coyotes’ end and Sidney Crosby beat Barrett Hayton to the slot to bury Guentzel’s feed for the first goal just 1:22 into the game.

Jason Zucker scored on a blast from the top of the circle that goalie Karel Vejmelka probably should have had, even with Jeff Carter parked in front. Guentzel took a feed from Bryan Rust at the near post to make it 3-0 with 5:10 expired on the clock.

“The start we had, that’s what hurt us,” coach André Tourigny said. “We were not mentally engaged enough. We need to find a way to get out of the gate with more urgency.”

To add injury to insult, the Coyotes lost forward Nick Schmaltz to an upper-body injury in the first period. He logged just 2:26 of ice time. Tourigny did not have much of an update on Schmaltz, but he did say that Schmaltz would not play on Saturday in Boston. 

Vejmelka (47 saves) settled in after the start and Nick Ritchie got the Coyotes on the board on a power play late in the second period when he banked a shot off the iron and in off a seam pass from Shayne Gostisbehere. But the Penguins responded with their own power-play goal, a rebound by Evgeni Malkin with 48.9 seconds left in the period to take a 4-1 lead. 

Ritchie added a third-period power-play goal and Barrett Hayton, who had a strong game, came close to cutting the lead to one goal before goalie Tristan Jarry robbed him at the doorstep. Overall, however, the Penguins outshot the Coyotes 53-28 and Arizona took five first-period penalties. Tourigny needed to see much more.

“It’s not the first time we’ve talked about that so there’s a few trends there,” Tourigny said. “Our start, our discipline and we need to be way more stingy defensively. Veggie was unbelievable tonight so we need to work on our identity.”

The scheduler makers didn’t get any kinder to Arizona with stop two on this trip. They will enter a Saturday game against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden where they are 3-14-1 all-time. The last time the Coyotes beat the Bruins when Boston was the designated home team was in Prague, Czechia in 2010. The last time they won at TD Garden was March 5, 2009, when Scottie Upshall and Steven Reinprecht had goals and Ilya Bryzgalov made 25 saves in a 2-1 victory.

The Penguins (.394) and Bruins (.301) are two of the four teams in the NHL against which the Coyotes own a points percentage below .400. The other two are the Canadiens, .338, whom the Coyotes also play on this trip, and the Sabres, .381.

Clayton Keller celebrates Nick Ritchie’s goal in the second period on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Clayton Keller returns

Clayton Keller took part in virtually every part of training camp this season, but he missed all seven preseason games as the Coyotes played it safely with their leading scorer, who is coming off a completely broken femur suffered on March 30 against the San Jose Sharks.

As expected, however, Keller was in the lineup for the season opener in Pittsburgh, skating on his accustomed line with Travis Boyd and center and Nick Schmaltz on the right wing (until Schmaltz got hurt), and wearing an A as an alternate captain (the other alternates were Lawson Crouse and Christian Fischer). 

It had been nearly seven months since Keller last played in a game.

“You never know how those timelines are going to go,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “Part of it was being cautious; part of it was making sure he was ready.”

Armstrong was convinced that Keller was ready, despite the long layoff.

“He has been practicing hard; really doing everything we need to see,” Armstrong said.

Keller logged 19:31 of ice time on Thursday, second highest among forwards. 

“I saw competitiveness, I saw drive, I saw passion, I saw a guy who wanted to win,” Tourigny said. “Everybody talks about how he’s a good player and he is, everybody is right, but what makes him special for me is that competitiveness and that drive.”

Dylan Guenther could make his NHL debut as early as Saturday in Boston. (Getty Images)

The Dylan Guenther plan

I discussed recently how Dylan Guenther’s mere presence around his Coyotes teammates after making the opening-night roster at the start of the season would provide something of value. Guenther agreed with that assessment as he watched the Coyotes-Penguins game as a healthy scratch.

“I think there’s value in every part of it,” he said after the morning skate. “Off the ice is huge, just building connections and getting to know guys, I think that helps with your on-ice chemistry when you have friendships off the ice and also game exposure by just being around it. 

“There’s a lot you can do off the ice to kind of prepare yourself and get ready but I think nothing really can match the speed of the game and how the guys play and just getting a feel for it. I think that the biggest thing for me is just adjusting to the speed and the pace of the game and obviously, the other players are so good, but I’m excited to watch tonight and I think that I’ll be able to take some things from tonight to apply to myself and apply to whenever I do get to play.”

Guenther will play, coach André Tourigny stressed. He is not here for the experience alone.

“Sometimes I think it’s overrated, and sometimes I think it’s of huge value for a player,” Tourigny said of simply being around the team. “If he was here only for the ride, it’s overrated. I’ve been around hockey for a long, long time. He’s here because he earned a spot. He’s not here because we want him to have a feel of the NHL. I don’t believe in that. I think when you’re ready, you’re ready.

“Guns had a really good training camp. We’re really happy about his play with and without the puck. He’s a really smart player without the puck and he can help the team in more ways than just scoring goals. He’s obviously an offensive weapon, but he can play in different roles on the team.”

When Guenther will play his first game is still in question, although Nick Schmaltz’s injury would seem to make Saturday likely. Tourigny said that the veterans who were in the lineup on Thursday all earned that spot in camp, but now he is down a forward.

“The plan for him will be to make sure we spread his games [out] to make sure he’s at his best every night,” Tourigny said. “We have a tough schedule, especially to start the season, and it’s a man’s league.

“He proved to us that he can play at that level and he will have a chance to keep proving it.”

Guenther said it was mind blowing to simply be in the arena watching a team that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have led to three Stanley Cups.

“I was just talking with [Jack McBain] last night and I was saying, ‘You’re gonna be taking draws against Sid and Malkin,” Guenther said, wide-eyed. “It’s kind of crazy.”

The plan for Connor Ingram

Connor Ingram got home from Prague, Czechia late on Sunday afternoon after traveling with the Nashville Predators to western Europe for the NHL Global Series games against the San Jose Sharks. It had been two weeks since he had seen his girlfriend, Sarah Mitchell, and their dog, Loki.

Photo courtesy of Connor Ingram.

“It was good to see them,” Ingram said. “Then at noon the next day I found out I was coming here so I got off the phone call and hopped on a flight at 4 p.m. that day and went to bed in Arizona.”

The Coyotes claimed Ingram off waivers on Monday, a move whose possibility PHNX Sports discussed more than two weeks ago. After arriving in Arizona, he practiced with the Coyotes on Tuesday and then hopped back on a plane with them on Wednesday to fly to Pittsburgh for Thursday’s season opener. 

“I don’t even know what time zone I’m in,” Ingram quipped.

Ingram has greater adjustments ahead. As the Coyotes de facto backup goaltender, he will have to play at some point, perhaps as soon as on this six-game trip. He doesn’t know many of the players, he doesn’t know their systems and he is still adjusting to his new surroundings, which keep changing every couple of days, given the Coyotes’ insane schedule.

“Obviously if he’s here, it’s because we saw really good things,” Tourigny said. “He had two good days with us and time will manage everything. There’s no long term plan on how we will use our goalies. We will go one day at a time.”

In the past two seasons that he played in the AHL, sandwiched around time off to get his OCD issues sorted out, Ingram, 25, was one of the best goalies in the minor leagues. He posted a 1.92 goals against average and a .933 save percentage with Milwaukee in 2019-20. He followed that with a 2.70 GAA and a .915 save percentage in 2021-22.

“Even his regular-season NHL games last year, which look like bad numbers on the stat sheet (3.71 GAA, .897 SP), were actually slightly above average, relative to shot quality in those games,” said Kevin Woodley, who publishes InGoal Magazine, a must-read outlet for all things related to goaltending. “His expected save percentage was .869 so he was plus-0.01, which is the same adjusted save percentage that [Toronto’s] Jack Campbell had last season, obviously with a much bigger sample. The kid can play. The question now is, can he manage the mental stress behind a bad team?”

Ingram didn’t cite any specific tweaks to his game that led to his breakthrough in the AHL. He just chalked it up to maturity.

“I think it was just a lot of growing up,” he said. “When you start pro hockey at 20 years old, it’s a game changer. I always relate it back to being a freshman in college. Until Christmas, you’ve kind of got to figure out what kind of balance you can have, what kind of life you can live and the older I got, the more comfortable I got and the game just kind of slowed down a bit. Now it’s time to take the next step.

“This is what you work your whole life for is to have an opportunity to play in this league so at this point in my life, I’m doing anything and everything just to stay, just to get an opportunity to stay in the NHL,” he said. “It’s really exciting for me and I’ll be forever grateful to this organization for giving me a chance.

“You have to break into the league as a second guy and you have to earn your stripes so I’ll work as hard as I can every day just to stay. Nobody dreams of being an American League Hockey goalie, but you’ve got to be the best at whatever level you’re at to take the next step up.”

Jakob Chychrun could join the Coyotes as soon as next week. (Getty Images)

Jakob Chychrun’s availability

Jakob Chychrun could join the Coyotes next week and start practicing with them when the team ventures north of the border for games in Canada against Toronto, Montréal and Ottawa, GM Bill Armstrong said. There is still no timetable for when Chychrun will play games as he rehabs a wrist injury that required surgery this summer.

“It just didn’t make sense for him to join the team for the start of this trip, with what he could still do back home, working with our guys,” Armstrong said. “He is getting close, though.”

When training camp began, Chychrun was skating on his own and even handling pucks, but he had not been cleared to shoot because the motion and impact puts a great deal of pressure and stress on the wrist. Armstrong said that Chychrun has now been cleared to shoot.

Although it is unlikely that he will play when he first joins the team, it is worth noting that the Coyotes will face two teams on this trip that have been widely reported to have interest in trading for Chychrun: Toronto and Ottawa.

Chychrun last played in a game on March 12 in Boston. 

News and notes

Until Thursday, Tourigny expected his defensive pairings for the season opener to look like this:

But the Coyotes found out on Thursday that Juuso Välimäki’s visa issues had not been sorted out so he could not play.

With that in mind, Tourigny juggled his pairs, putting the left-handed JJ Moser with right-handed Troy Stecher; left-handed Shayne Gistisbehere with inserted right-hander Josh Brown; and right-handers Dysin Mayo and Conor Timmins on the third pair. 

The Coyotes were hoping that Välimäki’s visa would be sorted out by Saturday’s game in Boston.

  • Nick Ritchie has 12 goals in 25 games as a Coyote.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere has nine points (three goals) in his past four games as a Coyote.
  • Cap Friendly reported on Wednesday that the Coyotes had assigned forward Matias Maccelli to Tucson of the AHL but that was just a paper move made for cap flexibility. Maccelli was in the lineup on Thursday and played well.

Top photo: Bryan Rust celebrates after scoring a back-breaking goal in the third period of the Penguins’ 6-2 win at PPG PAINTS Arena on Thursday. (Getty Images)

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