WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets will continue their journey in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week when they play the Nashville Predators or Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Second Round. For now, they're still marveling at the city's celebration mode after they eliminated the Minnesota Wild.
The Jets closed out their first-round series Friday with a 5-0 victory in Game 5 at Bell MTS Place. It was the first series win for the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise and the first series win in the NHL playoffs by a Winnipeg team in 31 years. The original Jets (now the Arizona Coyotes) defeated the Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division Semifinals in six games in 1987.
The customary Winnipeg white-out inside Bell MTS Place was in full throttle during the series-clinching victory, with fans reveling for most of the night after the Jets scored four goals in the first 11:59.
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Outside, a street and viewing party complete with four big screens was packed with white-clad fans; it stretched two blocks down Donald Street on the east side of the arena,and along Graham Avenue on the south side of the arena. The Winnipeg Police Service estimated that 36,000 people attended the viewing/street party, with no serious incidents reported.
"I saw the live pictures. It's unreal," said Jets forward Bryan Little, who scored a goal in Game 5. "The excitement and support you get from the fans here, to see those images of how big that crowd is outside, all downtown, together, cheering us on, it's something I've always wanted to experience my whole career. It's much appreciated, believe me."
Little has spent his entire 11-season NHL career with the Jets/Thrashers franchise, so this was his first playoff series win in the NHL. He said he has learned to understand the depth of the passion in Winnipeg fans since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in 2011.
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"They lost their team," he said, referring to the departure of the original Jets to Phoenix in 1996. "They didn't know if they were ever going to see an NHL team here again. Guys that were here that first year, you could tell just how much this hockey team meant to them. It's nights like tonight you see just how much they love it and support us.
"Playing in Atlanta, I wasn't sure I'd ever get to experience playing on a team like this and playing in a city like this, where hockey is loved this much. I just feel lucky to be a part of it."
Jets forward Matt Hendricks, who played his first game of the series in Game 5 after returning from a lower-body injury, said he has loved his first season in Winnipeg. The 36-year-old from Blaine, Minnesota, played for the Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche before joining the Jets this season.
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"These Canadian markets never cease to amaze me how outstanding they are come this time of year," Hendricks said. "The Winnipeg Jets may play in a smaller arena than most, but let me tell you, it's one of the loudest I've ever been in. It's really a lot of fun, the energy levels are up, you can hardly hear yourself think out there."
Jets coach Paul Maurice was asked after Game 5 what he thought about the reaction of Winnipeg's long-suffering fans in the context of the city's all-time record of 2-12 entering this year's NHL postseason and going 31 years without a series win.
"They're not long-suffering fans because they love the game first," Maurice said. "I get that they had a hard time with the teams in Alberta, just like everybody else in the NHL. But they're still very passionate about that game.
"We get all the (television pictures) that you guys have in the coaches' room and we see the crowd in the stands and the crowd out on the street. They love the game of hockey. It's almost secondary to the good time that's going on here now because they love the game. They love the event of it. Yeah, they love the Jets and they're happy, but it's almost like we're secondary to what is going on in the city and that's a great thing."
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During the third period of Game 5, a shot of Maurice appeared on the arena's video board. Fans cheered and started chanting his name.
"I didn't catch it," Maurice said with a wry smile in his postgame interview. "I can't make out most of what they say from the bench. Usually when a coach's name is getting chanted, it's usually not a good thing at all. We'll just hope it never happens again."
Hendricks said the Jets hope the city's passion continues for the games ahead.
"It's kind of a good feeling for this town right now," he said. "In my opinion we've got a darned good team. We've got a lot of depth, a lot of key players in key positions that have met expectations or exceeded expectations. We've got a good thing going here. I don't want to put the horse in front of the carrot, but it's a great feeling right now and been a great atmosphere. We just need to take it one step at a time."
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