GLENDALE -- Hockey is back.
If that doesn't make you want to just randomly burst into song, I don't know what will. And we've officially reached the point where the countdown can be measured in hours (or minutes, if you're really fanatical) rather than days.
In a season where the Coyotes will raise their first ever Pacific Division banner, they'll also have plenty of work to do in a hurry. Not just because they'll have a target on their back as one of the final four teams standing at the end of last season, but because a condensed schedule presents some unique scenarios for 2013.
With that in mind, here are five key notes about the condensed regular-season schedule...
1. No three-point games allowed
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Let's be honest here, Head Coach Dave Tippett has never been a fan of allowing the opponent to get a point in the standings, regardless of whether that opponent is from the Eastern Conference or the West. But, statistically speaking at least, it doesn't really matter if the Coyotes let somebody like Toronto push them to overtime - as long as they still come away with two points at the end of the night - because any point that a team from the East grabs really has no effect on Phoenix. That's out the window this year.
The Desert Dogs play 48 regular season games, and 48 of them are against teams from the West. That means every game counts - even more so than usual. Not only are there fewer opportunities to make a move up the standings, each matchup will pit the Coyotes against someone they're directly competing with for a playoff spot. So, even on a night when Tippett's group does find itself playing past regulation, digging deep to pick up the extra point will be that much more valuable now. The only fool proof plan? Go 48-0, of course.
2. A home-heavy first half
One of the most important things an NHL team can do this season is get off to a fast start. And the Coyotes are in a good position to do exactly that because a) they return the core of a roster that made it all the way to the Western Conference Final in May, b) they've been training together informally in the offseason more than most and c) they've shown in the past that they can maintain the sort of consistent even keel that this year is going to demand. They also play 16 of their first 26 games at home. That's an opportunity they'll need to take advantage of, and one that you can bet Tippett has pointed out to his players. Of course, that leads to...
3. A road-loaded second half
Fourteen of the final 22 regular season games will be played away from Jobing.com Arena. Not only that, seven of the last 10 contests are in different cities. Fortunately for the Desert Dogs, their magical run last year was punctuated by their uncanny ability to deliver their best performances against the best opponents in tough spots when the games mattered most (see: Smith, Mike). And they were 20-14-7 on the road last season - second-best in the conference - so it's not like they don't know how to win away from home.
4. A hat trick of Ducks
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On Saturday, March 2, the Coyotes play Anaheim. Then, on March 4, they play Anaheim. Finally, on March 6, they play Anaheim again. Seem weird? That's because it is. But that's one of the biggest quirks in the schedule this season. Teams out West always rack up more mileage in a given season than teams from the East. That's just the way it is. But it will be even more pronounced this season. So having a team like the Ducks relatively close by is a good way to get a slight "break" from the travel. For one week at least, the Coyotes and Ducks get to feel what it's like to be the New York Rangers, who could probably bike to half of their road games if they had to.
Here's the thing though. What this week in early March lacks in travel miles, it makes up for in intensity. Playing the Ducks three straight times is basically like having a mini-playoff series right in the middle of the season. Think emotions might be running high by that third meeting? Think Jonas Hiller might be sick of Shane Doan by then?
5. More March Madness
After that tripleheader with Anaheim, Phoenix plays Los Angeles three times in an eight-day span in the middle of March. Good thing these two clubs love each other and this isn't rapidly evolving into one of the bigger rivalries in hockey. I'm sure sparks won't fly.