The games in October remain just as important as the games in April.
That’s the consensus emulating from the Arizona Coyotes locker room after practice Tuesday. While the schedule favors the Coyotes over the opening two weeks, the venue may be one thing but taking advantage of the schedule maker is quite another issue.
Last season, the Coyotes defeated the New York Rangers before a sell-out crowd on home ice on opening night and then proceeded to drop the next two. However, from Oct. 10 to Nov. 21, they lost only two games in that span and jumped out to a record of 11-3-2.
If the start was strong, the finished was dismal. After dropping a 3-1 decision to Minnesota on March 29, the Coyotes fell off the playoff precipice by going winless in their next six games and finished two points out of a playoff spot.
This time, the Coyotes open the season with four straight home games, including a visit from the defending Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings in game two.
“The schedule is a huge advantage for us,” said center Sam Gagner after practice Tuesday. “It’s extremely important we play well early or else things can quickly slip away. Once you lose that kind of momentum, it’s a struggle to get to back.”
While the Coyotes open with Winnipeg Thursday night and then entertain the Kings two nights later, these teams are followed in by the Oilers and Blues. The first six games are against Western Conference opponents and an opportunity to grab some quick, important standing points.
“A good start is imperative,” echoed coach Dave Tippett after practice on Tuesday. “In fact, every game is important. The games at home will give us a good momentum.”
As the Coyotes work toward a successful opening two weeks, Tippett remains undecided on composition of his lines. When asked after practice Tuesday if had decided on his lines, he simply smiled and said, “no.”
Then, Tippett laughed and gave a slight timetable.
“How about (after practice) on Wednesday,” he said. “Maybe the morning skate before the opener or after the first period.”
A light-hearted moment aside, Tippett would only say that Joe Vitale and Brandon MacMillan would open the season as the principal penalty-killers. They will also skate together on the same line with either Kyle Chipchura, Martin Hanzal or rookie Justin Hodgman as their center.
Same for defensive parings.
In training camp, Tippett experimented with Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the right side and Keith Yandle on the left. On the blue line, Tippett kept seven skaters and the odd-man out, at least at the start of the season, appears to be Chris Summers. Then again, Tippett could scratch Connor Murphy, who had a strong rookie season a year ago, or Michael Stone on any given night.
Here at the advent of the season, the pieces appear to be in place.
“At this point, I think we’re reacting to our responsibilities rather than thinking what should we do or where should we be,” said captain Shane Doan. “That’s a good sign. We know what we’re supposed to be doing and to be at the right spot at the right time.”
With sell-out crowds expected for the opening two games against the Jets and Kings, the Coyotes should be able to feed off the electricity in Gila River Arena. In the end, they hope, that heightened energy level translates into important, early-season victories.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.