GLENDALE, Ariz. – After being introduced at centre ice, the new owners of the Phoenix Coyotes made their way down a red carpet in front of the team bench.
Instead of just walking past and down into the tunnel, they pumped their fists at the players, shouted words of encouragement and slapped hands with anyone who was near the boards.
The enthusiasm carried over onto the ice, sparking a rousing start to a new era in the desert.
Radim Vrbata scored three goals, Mike Smith stopped 23 shots, and the Coyotes opened their first season with an owner in four years by routing the New York Rangers 4-1 on Thursday night.
“It was real exciting for us to see how excited those owners were on the ice,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “When they walked back in front of the bench, they looked like they were living their dream, just like we’re living our dream with the jobs we have.”
With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance, the Coyotes introduced each member of the team and coaching staff before the game, then had the group of owners from IceArizona take their turn at centre ice.
Charged by the raucous cheers for the owners and the playoff-like atmosphere inside Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes jumped on New York early, answered the Rangers’ lone goal quickly, and ran away behind Vrbata’s second straight hat trick—dating to last season—and fifth career.
Kyle Chipchura also scored, Martin Hanzal had two assists, and Smith made some tough saves on a pair of early penalty kills, including one from his stomach on a shot by Benoit Pouliot.
“That’s what everyone’s been waiting for the past four years,” Vrbata said. “The fans liked it, we liked it on the bench and took advantage of it early on. That’s a good thing.”
The Rangers withstood Phoenix’s initial surge in their first game under new coach Alain Vigneault, tying the game on Marc Staal’s power-play goal early in the second period.
New York was no match for the Coyotes the rest of the way, missing on a couple of scoring chances while giving Phoenix too many, particularly during and after a power play in the second period that led to Vrbata’s first goal.
“If we get out of that period, keep the momentum after that power-play goal, it might be a different game,” Rangers centre Brad Richards said. “Little details that we can control, and we got ourselves in trouble with those penalties.”
This opening night in the desert was one many didn’t think would ever come.
Ownerless since 2009, the Coyotes spent the previous four years playing under the shadow of an uncertain future.
That changed over the summer, when George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and the rest of IceArizona followed through where so many suitors had failed, purchasing the franchise from the NHL for $170 million.
The deal revitalized the fan base and immediately triggered a change of fortune, giving Phoenix the financial footing to compete with the NHL’s other 29 teams.
They got the new era off to a great start, playing the kind of stay-at-home, counterattacking game they’ve developed under Tippett in front of a sellout crowd of 17,125.
“We competed well. We played how we need to play to be successful,” Tippett said. “Smitty made some big saves, got a couple of big plays from some players, and it’s a good way to start.”
The Rangers went into this season with a fresh start of sorts, as well.
Following the firing of coach John Tortorella, New York turned to Vigneault. The former Vancouver coach brought with him a softer voice than the growling Tortorella—not a hard thing to do—and promised an aggressive, attacking style.
The Rangers faced some big obstacles to start the season, though.
Captain Ryan Callahan was out for at least the opener, and forward Carl Hagelin will be out at least the first 10 games, both with shoulder injuries. New York also starts with a daunting road trip, playing nine games in 23 days away from home because of renovations to Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers looked sluggish early in the opener, and Phoenix capitalized with Chipchura scoring on a one-timer off a feed from Rob Klinkhammer from behind the net.
New York picked up the pace late in the first period and early in the second, tying it early on a goal by the defenceman Staal, who beat Smith with a wrister to the stick side.
It was all Coyotes after that.
Vrbata scored less than four minutes after Staal’s goal, collecting his own rebound and lifting it over Henrik Lundqvist. Vrbata made it 3-1 early in the third period on a power play, beating Lundqvist from above the left circle on a shot through traffic.
He put the game away and sent the hats flying to the ice by completing the natural hat trick on a 4-on-4, punching in a rebound after creating a turnover behind New York’s net. Vrbata also had three goals in last season’s finale against Anaheim.
“That second goal really turned the game back to their favour,” said Lundqvist, who made 28 saves. “It was a tough one.”
NOTES: The Coyotes said Vrbata is the first NHL player to have a hat trick in a season finale and in the opener of the next season since Los Angeles’ Luc Robitaille in 1988. He is also the first Coyotes player to open a season with a hat trick and the first to have an opening-game hat trick against the Rangers. … Phoenix will play its next five games on the road, starting at San Jose on Saturday night. … Rangers C Dominic Moore was on the ice for the first time in over a year after missing last season due to the death of his wife, Katie. … Rangers C Derek Stepan, who signed a two-year contract late in training camp, had an assist. … Phoenix played without D Rostislav Klesla (concussion) and F Paul Bissonnette (suspension).