The Winnipeg Jets failed to reward their faithful and raucous fans, losing 5–1 to the banged-up Montreal Canadiens in their season opener at the MTS Centre on Sunday.
The Jets, Canada’s seventh NHL team, had a grand opening ceremony featuring Winnipeg-born & Juno Award-winning singer Chantal Kreviazuk, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Brass and Percussion Ensemble to perform the national anthem.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand as was Canada’s Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper. A touching video montage for recently deceased Jets tough guy Rick Rypien was played and his mom handled the ceremonial face-off between the two captains, Montreal’s Brian Gionta and Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd.
The Jets last played in Winnipeg back in 1996 before moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. Earlier this year, the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg.
Fan interest in hockey in the province of Manitoba in Canada is extremely high and has a rich history with the likes of former players Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne.
The Jets picked Hawerchuk first overall in 1981 and he went on to score 103 points in his rookie season. Selanne actually eclipsed that, setting the NHL rookie goal-scoring record with 76 in the 1992–1993 season.
Winnipeg sold out its 13,000 season tickets in 17 minutes.
With their new dark blue jerseys featuring a distinctively militaristic logo, this was a rebirth of hockey in Winnipeg, with a new history ready to be created. Commenting on the logo, Prime Minister Harper told the CBC during the game that he found the logo “really attractive,” and that it was “a great tribute to the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
Montreal put a dent in the Winnipeg crowd’s excitement when winger Michael Cammalleri took advantage of a giveaway by Johnny Oduya and went top shelf on Ondrej Pavelec.
After only three minutes into the game, the Jets were down 1–0 but were starting to put Montreal on its heels, buoyed by their incredible home support.
Checking winger Tanner Glass told the CBC in first period intermission, “If we use our size to our advantage, we can be successful.”
The Jets did have a size advantage against the speedier Canadiens, but Montreal had the ultimate trump card in red-hot goalie Carey Price, who made 30 saves for the win.
“Carey did it all last year,” said the diminutive Gionta, who had a strong game despite being knocked flat on his backside.
Montreal’s best forward Tomas Plekanec gave the visitors a 2–0 lead in the second period, making Oduya look bad, as he raced in and went up high on Pavelec. Oduya, an offensive-minded defenseman, had a game to forget ending up with a -3 rating.
With Montreal having lost Cammalleri and veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek due to injury, the Jets pushed hard to get back in the game in the third period. Big defenseman Dustin Byfuglien seemed to only care about helping the attack, as he would often not be home when the Canadiens counter-attacked.
One for the History Books
Early in the third period, Nik Antropov crashed the net (and Price) and managed to jab home the first goal in the new Winnipeg Jets’ history. It was one of only a few memorable moments for Jets fans on this day.
With renewed hope, being down now 2–1, the Jets ramped up the physical play, trying to take advantage of Montreal’s overworked five defenseman.
But a questionable penalty on Byfuglien (for interference on Gionta) gave Montreal a 4-on-3 power play. With the extra space in the Winnipeg zone, Plekanec found Yannick Weber, who one-timed a slap shot past Pavelec, making it 3–1 Canadiens.
Montreal made the Jets defense look ineffective by adding two more goals near the middle of the third period.
Despite being down 5–1, Winnipeg Jets fans gave their team a standing ovation in the final minute of the game.
“It’s a big moment for the city,” said Ladd after the game. “Fans have been waiting for 15 years.
“Pretty disappointing to give that performance,” Ladd continued referring to the dismal team play. “We’re just sloppy is the best way to describe it.”
The Jets know that all the hype won’t get them points in the standings and that they have a lot of work to do to be a playoff team, based on where the Thrashers finished last year. The team has added a few new faces and still needs to build team chemistry and cohesiveness under new coach Claude Noel.
Their first pick in this year’s draft (No. 7 overall) Mark Scheifele saw 13 minutes of action, including some time on the power play, and finished with a 0 rating for the game, not bad considering his team lost by four goals.
Jets legend Hawerchuk said of Scheifele, “He’s our hardest worker on and off the ice. You can’t help but pull for the kid.”
It remains to be seen how many games the 18-year-old Schiefele will play this season, despite an impressive training camp.
Next up for the Jets is Chicago on Thursday followed by a trip to visit the “old Jets” Phoenix on Saturday.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports