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AP: 4a391d05-f8f8-4ba4-af9a-cb7df57e224d
Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, right, celebrates their 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators with Keith Yandle (3) after Game 2 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, April 29, 2012, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes won 5-3. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
During my Sunday errand running, I found myself at a local grocery store with my 16-year-old son, picking up a few items for a visit to my sister's house.

We were headed over to watch Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators.

Watching big sporting events in a large group has been going on for years in my family -- this, however, was the first time any configuration of the Marotta clan had ever gathered for a hockey game.

Anyway, as my son and I walked to the checkout stand -- he in his official Whiteout shirt and me in a Coyotes cap -- we were engaged by the clerk who started talking hockey with us.

"Are you guys going to the game tonight," he asked.

"No, we're just going to catch it on the tube," I answered.

"Man, I hope they win this one without having to go to overtime," he said.

"Yeah, hopefully," I answered. "But it wouldn't shock me."

Forgive my lack of salient analysis in this conversation. I was floored.

I've lived in the Valley since 1979 and became involved in this city's sports media in 1996 - the same year the Coyotes got to town - and this was the first time I can remember a perfect stranger engaging me in a conversation about the Phoenix Coyotes.

Ever.

It's starting to feel like Phoenix is becoming real hockey town.

Those in traditional hockey markets and rabid Canadian cities may scoff at the above proclamation, but hey, it's gotta start somewhere.

This has been a season of firsts for the Phoenix Coyotes' franchise. They won their first division title. They've moved on to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since they've been in the Valley. They've won three straight playoff games for the first time since 1999.

So why can't these be the first steps toward Phoenix becoming a "real" hockey market? This can be the case, as long as the Coyotes continue this run.

I hate to say it, but Phoenix is a front-runner town. We all know it. "SunsMania" was at an all-time high in 1993, when Barkley and the boys were marching toward the team's second-ever trip to the NBA Finals.

The Arizona Cardinals' unexpected journey to Super Bowl XLIII sparked a football fever in Phoenix that had not been seen before.

And of course, the peak of Arizona Diamondbacks' fandom was their dramatic win over the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series.

The Coyotes could never share in the glow of capturing the market's attention. For most of their existence in Phoenix, sports fans treated the 'Yotes like that weird uncle -- the one you know a little bit and he's technically part of the family, but you're certainly not apt to drive across town to see him.

But suddenly, old Uncle Whatshisname is getting his act together.

For the first time, both rabid fans and casual latecomers are expecting big things instead of just hoping that the Coyotes get into the playoffs or win a series.

The way this team is playing right now could very well end in guys like Shane Doan, Mike Smith and Radim Vrbata hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup in June.

But even if that doesn't happen, eager Phoenix bandwagon jumpers have been given their first opportunity to taste Coyotes' success.

Now it's up to the Coyotes and the City of Glendale to keep them aboard.

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