The Wrap: Smith Shines in hard-fought game against Vegas Golden Knights

Nathan Smith picked up right where he left off last season.

The Coyotes prospect scored two goals and goalie Anson Thornton made 18 saves, but Arizona dropped a close 3-2 game against the Vegas Golden Knights on the opening day of the 2022 Rookie Faceoff Tournament on Friday.

The 23-year-old Smith, who scored two goals in 10 NHL games at the end of last season, struck twice again on Friday, evening the score following deficits of 1-0 and 2-1. Golden Knights forward Brendan Brisson scored the eventual game-winning goal 8:40 into the third, as the Coyotes were unable to get anything else past Vegas goalie Isaiah Saville, who finished with 24 saves.

Thornton, who signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Coyotes last October, came up big on multiple occasions, including a glove save on a penalty shot in the third period, when the score was still tied 2-2.

“Our goalie made a lot of big saves, particularly off that penalty shot that kept us in there, but you have to like the resilience,” said Tucson Roadrunners head coach Steve Potvin, who is also coaching the Coyotes in the tournament. “They scored, we scored right back. That’s a good sign for our guys, and good character at the end there.”

Smith truly stood out in the often-chippy game, as the Minnesota State Mankato product was consistently in the right place at the right time. On his first goal, he sent he puck towards the net on a passing attempt, but it deflected off a Golden Knights defenseman and past Saville.

Tweet from @AZCoyotesPR: ‌They showed a lot of grit, didnt give up and they kept going.‌ Hear from #Yotes forward Nate Smith and @RoadrunnersAHL Head Coach Steve Potvin after tonight‌s 3-2 loss to Vegas in the rookie tournament. pic.twitter.com/NZy8EjgSqZ

His second goal was again a product of his positioning, gathering a rebound before backhanding it into the net.

Though he admitted there was a little rust to shake off, his instincts and attention to detail took over.

“It was my first game in a while, and I really just tried to do my best to be in the right positions,” Smith said. “I got a couple of lucky bounces at the net.”

Smith’s play impressed Potvin, especially after he tied the game at two just 33 seconds after the Golden Knights had regained the lead.

“He’s got a lot of tenacity,” Potvin said. “I think when you’re doing a lot of good things, a lot of times those pucks seem to find you in the right areas, and then you end up converting a goal or two.”

True to form, the Coyotes rookies proved to be a tough, gritty team to play against. Arizona and Vegas combined for 11 penalties totaling 28 minutes, and forward Jack McBainwho also has 10 games of NHL experience, dropped the gloves with Golden Knights defenseman Joe Fleming late in the first period.

Forward Milos Keleman, who signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Coyotes in May, also mixed it up in the second period after taking exception to a cross-check after the whistle.

“That’s one of the things we stressed coming into this,” Smith said. “When somebody gets into a little bit of trouble, we need everybody in there.”

The tough-nosed hockey has become an early trademark of the Coyotes at the NHL level under general manager Bill Armstrong and head coach André Tourigny, and Potvin said it’s no accident that it’s trickling down to the rookies, as well.

“That’s something that we’re trying to key on, building strength in our organization this way,” Potvin said. “That’s one of our key things. I imagine it’s going to continue as we see the Coyotes grow.”

Smith’s NHL experience offers him an opportunity to step up and lead by example, and it showed with him skating as an alternate captain on Friday night.

As the Coyotes prepare for their next game on Saturday, Smith said he’s excited to continue in that role.

“10 games isn’t much, but compared to some of the other guys, it is a little something,” Smith said. “Just trying to go out there and, like you said, lead the way a little bit, and just kind of help them through some things.

“I’m learning myself, still, along the way.”

Arizona is back in action on Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks, and the game will be available via stream. Puck drop is scheduled for 4:30 pm Arizona time.

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