Arizona Coyotes, Auston Matthews, Karel Vejmelka, Ryan Dzingel

3 Takeaways From the Coyotes’ 2-1 Win Over the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Arizona Coyotes welcomed Auston Matthews and the vaunted Toronto Maple Leafs to Glendale on Wednesday night in a nationally televised game, and by all accounts, the 23-8-3 Maple Leafs could take an easy two points and head to St. Louis to focus on their next game against the Blues.

Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka never got that memo.

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Arizona’s 25-year-old rookie goalie stole the show, and the game, as his 45 saves were just enough to help propel the Coyotes to a stunning 2-1 victory over the Maple Leafs, despite being outshot 46-18.

Vejmelka Continues to Impress Every Game

The shorthanded Coyotes needed all the help they could get, as they were missing five players, as well as coach André Tourigny, to COVID protocol. For their part, the Maple Leafs were also missing two players, including star forward Mitch Marner, but didn’t miss a beat while unleashing an offensive onslaught of shots towards Arizona’s net.

Only problem was they couldn’t get it past Vejmelka.

Every single time Toronto mounted an attack, the goalie was there to shut it down. He even earned a standing ovation from the crowd at Gila River Arena near the end of the second period, this after stopping a flurry of opportunities to preserve the Coyotes’ then-1-0 lead. Forward Ryan Dzingel scored twice, which, with the way Vejmelka was playing, was enough to come away with the win.

Karel Vejmelka Arizona Coyotes
Karel Vejmelka made 45 saves in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Phil Housley, who was acting head coach with Tourigny out, took immediate note of the netminder’s play, but was also pleased with the energy the Coyotes showed in the opening moments of the game, especially considering the Maple Leafs beat the Vegas Golden Knights in a shootout just one night earlier.

“Obviously, Veggie, you guys know the story with that,” he said. “A lot of the wins we had this year, our goaltenders have been really strong for us, but I like the way we were opportunistic tonight.”

Each passing game it becomes more unbelievable that this is Vejmelka’s first-ever go-round in North American hockey, considering he’s been carrying the lion’s share of work lately.

“He puts a lot of work in behind the scenes, he’s prepared, and that’s what it is to be a goalie in the NHL,” forward Ryan Dzingel said after the game. “You have to show up every night, you have to be prepared, you have to do things the right way, so I think he’s … unbelievably prepared, and he works his tail off, so it’s nice to have a goalie like him.”

Of course, facing one of the NHL’s top offenses in the Maple Leafs makes any goalie’s life difficult, but Vejmelka said he didn’t approach the game any different, even with the star power of Matthews on the ice. Matthews broke through in front of his hometown friends and family just 14 seconds into the third period, but that was all the offense Toronto could muster against the Coyotes’ goalie.

Toronto’s superstar certainly commands attention, but Vejmelka did not change his approach prior to Wednesday’s game.

“I can’t focus only on [Matthews], he’s a special player, he’s one of the best players in the league, and I knew when he was on the ice,” he said. “I try to focus on every player on the ice. Everybody is dangerous.”

It’s clear, above anything else, “Veggie” is finding his comfort zone in the crease, especially as the season wears on.

“I played a couple more games, and I (gained) more experience after these games,” he said. “I feel better and better every game, and that is something important for me. I have a new experience after every game so I feel very good.” 

Ryan Dzingel Returns From Injury, Scores Two Goals

Dzingel, who was playing in his first game since Dec. 10 against the Florida Panthers, scored both goals for the Coyotes, who never trailed in the game. The first was a fluky goal that bounced off the boards, back in front of Maple Leafs goalie Petr Mrazek, and Dzingel was able to knock the puck into the back of the net, giving the Coyotes a 1-0 lead in the first.

His second goal, courtesy of a beautiful saucer pass from Nick Schmaltz, came with just over seven minutes left in the third period, and gave the Coyotes a 2-1 lead, which was more than enough for Vejmelka the way he was playing.

The 29-year-old’s return to the lineup couldn’t have come at a better time for the shorthanded Coyotes, who had yet another player make his NHL debut. Defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok, who took the traditional lap before the pregame skate, logged 12:01 time on ice on 20 shifts, and finished a plus-1.

The Coyotes have asked a lot from their prospects this season, as Kolyachonok was the sixth player from the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners, to make their NHL debut this season.

“They don’t get to dip their toe in like most of us did coming into the league,” Dzingel said. “I think I played two minutes my first game, and these guys are going right in head first, so that’ll be good for them, good for their development, and we’re just trying to stick with it.”

Coyotes Minimize Penalties, Perfect on the Penalty Kill

The Coyotes have struggled this season with taking penalties at inopportune times, so Wednesday’s game against the Maple Leafs was a tall order, especially considering Toronto entered the game tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the league’s best power play at 30.21 percent. Though Arizona took back-to-back penalties in the first period, they killed both off, and remarkably stayed off the penalty kill for the rest of the game.

That effort made a huge difference, and Arizona’s reward was a win against a Stanley Cup contender — one that will likely resonate in the locker room for weeks to come.

“We know we have a lot of guys who are out, and we hope those guys remain healthy, same with our coaching staff and trainers,” Housley said, “but I think we rallied around that, we stuck together pretty tight in there, and it was a great response for our team to step up like that. Especially at home against a really formidable opponent that’s going to be very solid down the stretch. I tip my hat to the guys in that room, they really fought hard tonight.”

The Coyotes are back in action Friday against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver before returning home Saturday to face them again in the second game of a home-and-home series.

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