WINNIPEG – It was bitter cold with drifting snow outside MTS Centre on Saturday -- a perfect day for the start of a new hockey season for the home fans, except for the outcome.
The Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets brought hockey back to downtown Winnipeg before another raucous crowd. But the Senators disappointed the sold-out house by beating the Jets 4-1 in the season opener for both teams. Milan Michalek tied the game late in the first period, Chris Neil put the Senators ahead to stay in the second, and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who also contributed two assists, and Kyle Turris finished off the Jets with third-period insurance goals.
Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, who excelled against the Jets last season with a .932 save percentage, stopped 27 shots, including a huge stop during one of Winnipeg’s final few offensive pushes on Dustin Byfuglien’s point-blank chance that could have tied the game.
"It was just a great win by everybody," Anderson said.
Karlsson, the runaway scoring leader among defensemen last season, got off to a fast start with a three-point afternoon that drew praise from his teammates.
"Erik is something else," Anderson said. "He beats to his own drum. He's able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants."
Ondrej Pavelec, who signed a five-year contract with the Jets last summer, stopped 33 shots. Byfuglien scored the Jets’ lone goal.
"I think he would like to have had a little bit better game," Jets coach Claude Noel replied when asked about his goaltender.
Eight points separated the teams last season, but higher expectations greeted both clubs entering Saturday. Ottawa, a surprise club that pushed the New York Rangers to seven games in the first round of the 2012 Playoffs, tinkered with a roster that allowed 2.88 goals per game last season, sixth-worst in the League. The Senators returned to action with offseason addition Marc Methot on their blue line to go with forwards Guillaume Latendresse and youngster Jakob Silfverberg.
Methot fit in with Karlsson, his new partner, as the Senators fought off rust.
"It was kind of all over the place," coach Paul MacLean said. "Those are things that you have to come to expect early in the season, that things are going to be a little like that."
Winnipeg, maligned as a one-line club last season, added forward depth in veteran center Olli Jokinen and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky in a bid to return to the postseason for the first time since 2007. But in playing their first game in more than nine months, the Jets lacked execution from much of their roster.
"It was one of those games that we didn't expect," Noel said, "but we knew could happen.
"You could see that some guys were fatigued with the pace," Noel continued. "It's really difficult in a situation like that. You have to simplify some things. You couldn't reel guys in. They just wanted to do well. I thought it looked like some guys were out eight or nine months."
Fan favorite Byfuglien delivered the Jets’ first goal six minutes into the game. Byfuglien, who ranked second in scoring among defensemen with a career-high 53 points last season, made Ottawa pay 30 seconds after Neil took an offensive-zone penalty for driving Jets defenseman Mark Stuart into the end boards. Against an Ottawa penalty kill that ranked 20th last season, Tobias Enstrom slid a cross-ice pass to Byfuglien, who unleashed a rising left-circle shot that beat Anderson cleanly under the crossbar.
"I thought that Byfuglien was good," Noel said of his workhorse defenseman. "I thought he was responsible. I thought that he tried to make a difference in the game. I thought he played a more balanced game. He was probably our best player."
However, the Senators then controlled the game through much of the first period, rolling off an 11-3 shots advantage in one span against a Jets club that finished 26th in goals-against last season.
"I think that everybody probably felt nervous to start the game," Karlsson said of the Senators, who survived an early Winnipeg push that included two shots that clanged off posts.
Michalek scored 35 goals last season – five of them against the Jets – and continued his production against Winnipeg as turnovers, a familiar Winnipeg problem last season, and a heavy Ottawa forecheck led to the tying goal. Rookie defenseman Paul Postma turned over the puck deep in his own right corner. Patrick Wiercioch settled the loose puck and pushed it ahead to Michalek in the left circle, where the Ottawa sniper slipped a shot between Pavelec’s pads at 16:02.
Neil redeemed himself late in the second period less than a minute after the Senators’ first power play had expired when he pounced on a big rebound and tucked it behind Pavelec to give Ottawa a 2-1 lead with 2:48 remaining in the middle period .
The Jets enjoyed five of the game’s seven power-play opportunities, but the Senators used the man advantage to lock up the two points. Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd’s third-period slashing minor set up Ottawa’s second power play, which Karlsson used to blast a left-point shot past Pavelec with 7:45 remaining. Turris capped the scoring when he deflected a right-side shot off Byfuglien’s leg and past Pavelec with 2:10 to play.
"Not a lot of flow out there, just a pretty bad game all around," Jets forward Blake Wheeler acknowledged. "You know, 4-1, I don’t know if that’s indicative of how the game went. But I don’t think we played with a whole lot of urgency the whole game. I think we hoped we think we were going to be a little bit sharper than we were."