Storylines aplenty in Coyotes’ win over Panthers

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes needed a reason to smile. Their game had looked much better of late but they were riding a three-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s matchup with the surprisingly hot Florida Panthers at Gila River Arena.

Leave it to youth to deliver the much-needed mood swing.

Center Justin Hodgman scored in his first NHL game, left wing Sam Gagner finally registered his first point and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson slapped home his second overtime winner of the season as Arizona rallied to beat the Panthers, 2-1.

"We’re moving in the right direction," said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett in a tone that was as much tongue-in-cheek as it was a sigh of relief. "It was a close, hard-fought game. Both goalies played well. We capitalized on some power plays that we got. It’s a big two points for us."

It would be too easy to credit the Panthers for this feel-good night. Florida is not one of the NHL’s elite clubs, but the Panthers had been playing well on this four-game road trip, earning five of a possible six points.

Through three periods, this one was dead-even, but the Panthers cashed in first when right winger Jussi Jokinen picked Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle’s pocket behind the net and slipped the puck to left winger Tomas Fleischmann. Fleischmann circled the net and centered a pass to forward Brandon Pirri, who deked goalie Mike Smith and slid it inside the post at 1:47 of the third period for a 1-0 lead.

Coyotes 2, Panthers 1

Then it was Hodgman time.

With the Coyotes on their sixth of a whopping eight power plays, Keith Yandle waited for traffic to develop in front of Robert Luongo and then got a puck through to the net. Right winger Lauri Korpikoski tapped the rebound onto Hodgman’s stick all alone at the left post for an easy goal at 9:51 to tie the score at 1.

Hodgman made the Coyotes’ opening-day roster as a rookie free agent after playing in a variety of Canadian, American and European leagues over the past 10 seasons, but he was a healthy scratch in the first two games before being sent down to Portland of the AHL. With forwards Martin Hanzal and David Moss out with injuries, he was recalled to Arizona on Friday.

"I didn’t want to take my jersey off," Hodgman said after the game. "It’s been a long journey. I could have been in Belarus or somewhere in Russia. When I got called up, on the flight over here, I had some good reflection time." 

His goal broke a stretch of 127 minutes and nine seconds without a goal for Arizona, dating back to Tuesday’s game in Nashville. 

"That’s why play you the game, to be an NHL player and score an NHL goal," Tippett said of Hodgman. "To get one on his first game at his age is pretty special."

There were other happy angles for Arizona. Mike Smith turned in his second strong outing in a row, making 23 saves to earn his second win. And in his first game playing on the wing, Gagner made a perfect feed to Ekman-Larsson crashing the net on a 4-on-3 power play in OT.

"It’s obviously nice to help out on the power play at the end there and find a way to get the team the two points," said Gagner, who went pointless in his first six games. "It’s big. I’ve just got to keep it going."

Gagner had played the first six games at center, but when asked after the game if he envisioned Gagner staying on the wing for the short-term Tippett nodded.

"I’ll go back and look at the tape, but I didn’t mind his game tonight," Tippett said.  

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter