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Coyotes' 'Return to Play' About to Get Real

Thursday exhibition against Vegas puts Arizona back in 'game' action for first time since March 9

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

It's only an exhibition, but it feels like so much more.

When the puck drops Thursday night, it will mark the first live, competitive action for the Coyotes in 144 days. They last played March 9 in Winnipeg.

This game has been a long time coming: the March 12 pause; the May 26 unveiling of the Return to Play Plan, the July 10 Board of Governors and NHLPA approval.

Thursday's game doesn't count, but, ironically, it also counts for a lot.

It is the sole test for the Coyotes before Game 1 of their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers series against the Predators, beginning Sunday.

"Our team is itching for real," head coach Rick Tocchet said following Wednesday's practice.

"It's been four months, and now we're into the real stuff. Even though it's an exhibition, you still want to do the right things. Guys are simply itching to play."

It is almost impossible to simulate the intensity of an NHL game with intrasquad scrimmages. So, Thursday night the systems, conditioning, and line chemistry will be tested. 

"As much as it will be intense, you still want to do the right things out there," Tocchet said. "For me, it's knocking the rust off of guys. Guys will be able to go back for pucks, take some hits, go to the net, just feel the heat again. 

"Now we're in a position where we're playing (actual) opposition."

And Tocchet knows any team coached by Peter DeBoer will arrive with a well-structured plan.

"It's a good warm-up for us to play a team like (Vegas)," he said. "They've got high-end forwards and they're one of the better teams in the league. Anytime you get a chance to play against high-level players, that's good for us. It's a good exhibition team for us to play like Vegas."

Taylor Hall echoed Tocchet's sentiments. Thursday's game will be a measuring stick. Hall described the Golden Knights as a "tough" team, as an opponent that knows how to play quick and get on top pucks with a heavy forecheck. 

"I think we're all looking forward to getting in some game action," Hall said. "It's important to feel the speed of the game. This is going to be a good indicator for us as to how ready we are, especially with how (Vegas) plays. They play similar to Nashville. It's important for us to get out of this game healthy and feeling good, but to get that game feel back will be fun."

Clayton Keller is looking to ignite the Coyotes' speed.

"I think the biggest thing (for me Thursday) is just playing fast for our team," he said. "I think we can be a dangerous team when we do that. It's about making sure we have good details, feeling a hit again, and things like that. We can take that into Game 1 against Nashville." 

Keller's line has stood out in the lead up to Thursday's game. Hall is feeling in sync with his two linemates, Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak. The three have been skating together since the start of July; they're expected to be the Coyotes' first line Thursday. 

"I don't think we're expecting a perfect game by any means," Hall said. "If we can play fast and we can play to some of the qualities that we've been trying to instill in camp, that's all we're looking for. 

"You don't want to overreact after an exhibition game. It's important to remember that it's the first game in four-odd months. We'll get our systems in place. Hopefully, we're dialed in with the details, and now we have to play. Hopefully, lines can feel good together, the defense pairs can feel good, and our goalies can get some touches."

Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta will split time in net. Kuemper is expected to start. Tocchet has been leaning on goalie coach Corey Schwab for a final plan.

The Coyotes can dress 20 skaters for the game, two more than the normal limit of 18. The coaching staff will finalize the roster Wednesday night. 

The Coyotes posted a 1-1-1 record against the Golden Knights in the regular season, winning 4-1 on October 10, losing in a shootout November 29, and losing in regulation December 28.

The Coyotes will hold a morning skate Thursday, Tocchet said, though it may be optional for some. The game starts at 8 p.m., Edmonton time.

"It's a long day, so we'll see how guys prepare," Tocchet said. "Probably not as much video tomorrow, we'll probably let them relax. We've been pounding the video and we've been talking a lot, and I think tomorrow's just a day to go play. I want them just to play.

"It's really just to get the kinks out, get yourself bumped out there -- taking some hits, giving some hits, getting in front of the net, putting yourself under pressure, little things like that. You want to sharpen your game up."

The game will be televised on FOX Sports Arizona Plus; coverage begins at 7 p.m. Matt McConnell and Tyson Nash will provide play-by-play from Gila River Arena. Bob Heethuis and Paul Bissonnette will also broadcast the game on the Coyotes' flagship radio station, FOX Sports 910.

Lead Photo Credit: Richard A Whittaker - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images // Second Photo Credit: Len Redkoles - NHLI via Getty Images // Third Photo Credit: David Becker - NHLI via Getty Images // Fourth Photo Credit: Jeff Bottari - NHLI via Getty Images // Footer Photo Credit: Ethan Miller - Getty Images

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