GLENDALE -- Am I the only one that feels as if the calendar reads September?
Not a chance.
|Matt McConnell |
But with the National Hockey League season starting this weekend, it’s easy to forgive those fans who have the same feeling. You know, the one you get shortly after Labor Day that builds to the start of training camp. It’s the one that has you rushing for hockey publications when temperatures continue to hit triple digits.
The abridged version of the 2012-13 season might look and feel a bit different, but there’s no doubt it will offer some of the most exciting play in years. Whether teams like it or not, fast starts will be a pre-requisite for success. Gone is the 82-game hockey waltz. Forget about the typical “Marathon to May.”
“Sprint to Spring” anybody?
Every game will become a potential four-point swing in the standings. Get hot and punch your playoff ticket. Flounder and be toast by tax deadline day. Roster management goes from a hockey crossword puzzle to hockey Sudoku.
As the season rapidly approaches, the Coyotes appear to be heading into the abbreviated campaign in good shape. Goaltender and Vezina Trophy finalist Mike Smith is back to anchor the crease after putting up career numbers last season, his first in the desert. It was his body of work that was punctuated by his brilliant play in Game 6 against Chicago during the opening round of the playoffs.
Smith should continue to be the benefactor of a defensive unit that ranked in the top 10 a season ago. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek returns to the desert from Pittsburgh and hopes to rekindle his success from the first time around. Also returning is popular forward Matthew Lombardi, acquired from Toronto earlier in the week, who will help anchor the center position. Lombardi posted his best offensive numbers as a member of the Coyotes just a few seasons ago.
|Photo by Norm Hall |
Steve Sullivan signed as a free agent in early July and will look to fill the gap left by the departure of Ray Whitney to Dallas. Look for Sullivan to log top-line minutes on the power play and possibly even kill penalties, an area he exceled at when he led the NHL in short-handed goals during a season in Chicago. Former Calgary Flame David Moss arrives as a big-body forward likely ticketed for the front of the opposition net on man advantages.
Considering the shortened and condensed schedule, one could argue depth and success will go hand in hand for teams around the circuit. In fact, prior to Wednesday night’s intra-squad scrimmage, Head Coach Dave Tippett drove that point home to both rosters, and especially those recalled from Portland for the game, that they would be the group that could and would be called upon to fill roster spots throughout the season.
And in many ways, the toughest job in the organization will fall to Tippett and the rest of his staff. Off the ice, General Manager Don Maloney has done a masterful job of assembling the pieces for success that have resulted in three straight playoff appearances including last season’s deep run to the Western Conference finals. Ditto for the head coach between the boards. But this time around, it won’t just be about sorting line combinations, diagraming the power play or formulating systems. It’ll also be the constant monitoring of playing and practice times and handling the non-stop schedule of no less than three to four games per week.
Maybe last season’s horrific first-half schedule was a dry run for what they’re about to face. It was arguably the toughest and most rugged layout in franchise history. There were back-to-backs, brief layovers for the occasional game on home ice and multiple trips to the East Coast. Tippett and the team managed it beautifully. Their master plan worked to perfection, which undoubtedly played a role in their second-half success and playoff run.
They’ll need a repeat this season, albeit an abridged version.
So here we go. Saturday begins the 48-game sprint in 99 days.
Did I say sprint?
How about blur?