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Jets ready for first playoff series at MTS Centre

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler jokingly called his team's fans "obnoxious," and that quip came after a midseason road game against the Minnesota Wild in which thousands of Jets fans invaded Xcel Energy Center.

Home or away, the physical, speed-oriented style that coach Paul Maurice unlocked after arriving in January 2014 has succeeded in putting the franchise into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, when it played as the Atlanta Thrashers. Opponents can always expect a punishing game against the Jets, who finished eighth in the NHL in hits.

However, opponents visiting MTS Centre have to deal with more than the Jets. Visiting teams must deal with some of the rowdiest, loudest fans in the League. Since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011 after a 15-year absence, the Jets have sold out every game inside the 15,016-seat arena, the smallest building in the League.

The building's compact size and its deep lower bowl provide Winnipeg fans with an up-close view of the ice, something that they use to their advantage to lob good-natured taunts at visiting teams and players. The departed son (Shane Doan of the Arizona Coyotes), the dynamic defenseman (P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens), the superstars (Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals) and the quirky goaltender (Ilya Bryzgalov) all have been targets of Winnipeg fans.

Nashville Predators forward Colin Wilson grew up in Winnipeg and now comes to MTS Centre as a visiting player each season.

"The whole city, it's an exciting time for them, getting their NHL team back," Wilson said. "It's funny, the honeymoon period was over pretty quickly. You want the team to win. It's been great playing in that barn, just the atmosphere. It's almost playing like a college hockey game with how riled up everybody gets.

"They love hockey, they love their team, and there's a lot of pride in Winnipeg."

That atmosphere only figures to intensify when the playoffs return to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996. The old Winnipeg Arena is gone, but there's talk among fans about resurrecting the "whiteout" tradition that started in Winnipeg in the 1980s.

Winnipeg has not hosted a playoff game since April 28, 1996, when the original Jets franchise ended its 17-year run in the city with a loss to the Detroit Red Wings. The franchise left for Arizona that summer.

After the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets flirted with the postseason but ultimately fell short each of their first three seasons. They went 18-17-6 at MTS Centre last season, and home-ice struggles played a significant role in keeping them out of the playoffs.

But this season the Jets have finally figured out how to use the home-ice atmosphere to their advantage. The Jets went on a 12-2-2 run at home in the second half and came within one win of tying the single-season franchise record of 24 home victories.

As the Jets made their push to the playoffs in March and April, the atmosphere at MTS Centre intensified with each home game.

"It's a little cheesy, but part of the reason is the excitement of the fans and the building," center Bryan Little said of the improved home record. "It definitely has been more lively lately in the past month. It's a lot easier to get up for games when the crowd is into it."

The Jets have defeated big-time opponents at MTS Centre this season. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Predators, Canadiens and Capitals each have lost in Winnipeg.

But MTS Centre could take its regular-season standard to a new level with the first playoff game in Winnipeg in 19 years. Doan is the only member of the original Jets franchise still playing, but the Jets and Anaheim Ducks will find out what playoff hockey in Winnipeg can be like.

"The fans are more passionate coming down to crunch time," said forward Drew Stafford, who the Jets acquired in a February trade with the Buffalo Sabres. "I think we can feed off that energy, so you've got to give credit to the fans for coming out and supporting us."

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