Despite loss, it was a memorable night in Winnipeg
Mike G. Morreale
WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeggers stood and roared their approval during player introductions, sang in unison during the Canadian National Anthem and then erupted when the puck finally dropped in the much-anticipated season opener for their Winnipeg Jets.
It was a celebration like no other; those good times were back. And within the NHL's smallest venue, you kind of got the feeling that the 15,004-seat, $133.5-million MTS Centre was about ready to burst at the seams.
The home team would suffer a 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, but it made no difference. How often do you witness a standing ovation with under one minute remaining in the game and that team trailing by four goals? Well, it happened in Winnipeg.
"It was pretty incredible," Jets rookie forward Mark Scheifele said. "Inevitably, if you're losing, people would be leaving, sometimes halfway through the second period. So to get a standing ovation when we lose just shows we're going to have our fans behind us, regardless, and we have to keep on working hard."
The Jets returned home following a 15-year absence and, really, it was like they never left as the chants of "Go Jets Go!" began early and continued often.
In addition to Commissioner Gary Bettman, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Jets' alumni Keith Tkachuk and Dale Hawerchuk were a few of the dignitaries on hand to absorb the incredible pulse that not only reverberated throughout the building but likely the entire province of Manitoba.
Each time Jets chairman Mark Chipman was shown on the scoreboard during warmups, the fans roared their approval.
"Really, I think that I'm glad that people feel so good about this," Chipman said. "This is a good city and it has been for a long time. It became an ever greater city, to be honest, when the NHL left in 1996 because rather than dwell in self-pity, the community really dug in and thrived to make it better through a collective effort. I just hope this is another step in that process and another chapter. Because they helped the economy grow, that helped us give back like this."
Still, the fondest memory those Jets' players will take from the game is the support they received throughout.
"Just the whole atmosphere … it was great," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "At the end of the game, we were losing 5-1 and they're still standing up and cheering, which was pretty impressive with the performance we put on. So the fans, in general, is something I'll remember most about this game."
Even after Montreal's Max Pacioretty had extended the lead to 5-1 at 12:32, the fans continued their "Go Jets Go!" chant. There will be better days and, perhaps, the sellout crowd realizes that. The Jets will now hit the road for games in Chicago on Oct. 13 and Phoenix two days later before returning to the friendly confines of MTS Centre on Oct. 17 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"(The fans) have been ready since the summer, so to come out and lose 5-1 is nothing to be proud of from our point of view, but we know they're going to be there so we just have to come out, regroup and put this behind us," Jets forward Chris Thorburn said. "We have to get the victory the next home game."
Nik Antropov was the first to send those in attendance into a state of delirium when he poked home a puck off a rebound 2:27 into the third period. Defenseman Mark Stuart took the initial shot from the left point, before the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Antropov gathered the rebound and swept a shot home before falling onto his back at the left post.
"There aren't many arenas where the fans are still cheering when you're losing like that and that was great," Antropov said. "Normally, fans boo but the fans were great and it's just unfortunate we couldn't get it done."
Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who tied for the team lead with four shots, was grateful the fans stuck with the team despite their performance.
"The crowd was good and it was nice to be in front of a full crowd again," he said. "We can't control anything that goes on up there (in the crowd) but it's nice. Now we just have to go to work. We've got a couple of games ahead of us before our next home game, so we'll focus on Chicago now and then move on."
Jets coach Claude Noel made no excuses and admitted he's still proud of his group.
"I still love this team as much today as I did yesterday," he said. "I still think we're going to be a good team … I think we are a good team. They are disappointed and I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to measure this game by the score. I saw a lot of good things in this game that I liked and some that I didn't. I know one thing, our guys care about winning."