They do it every game, but this bitterly cold November night in Winnipeg it was just a bit louder, just a bit warmer.
Halfway through the second verse of O Canada, the sellout crowd of 15,000-plus roars “TRUE NORTH!” as one – a ritualistic salute to the team of young entrepreneurs that brought the Jets back to their original home three years ago.
Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils, however, marked the 10th anniversary of the MTS Centre, the new downtown rink that made the return of an NHL franchise possible.
True North Sports & Entertainment had to tear down the old Eaton’s building to make space for the rink, but they kept the Timothy Eaton statue where, for decades, Winnipeggers lined up to rub the department store baron’s bronzed left toe for good luck.
Perhaps the 2014-15 Jets should line up to put a little extra shine on that famous toe before Thursday’s match against the Detroit Red Wings – not so much to give Winnipeg some luck as it would be to ensure their remarkable new luck holds.
Tuesday night the Jets rather effortlessly defeated the visiting New Jersey Devils 3-1 on goals by newcomer Mathieu Perreault, 21-year-old Mark Scheifele and former Chicago Blackhawks forward Michael Frolik. Only aging New Jersey veteran Patrik Elias managed to score for the Devils – mind you, the Devils only counted nine shots through two periods, 22 for the game.
The only problem the Jets seem to have, so far this season, is scoring goals. For highly touted prospect Scheifele, it was only his third. For Perreault, who scored 18 last season for the Anaheim Ducks, it was his first.
“I’ve been working really hard and they weren’t going in,” the small and speedy Perreault said after the match. “I had the chances. I just kept working and eventually, I knew it was going to go in. Tonight, it went in.
“Hopefully it’s the start of more.”
He is hardly alone in such hope. After a stumbling previous season in which the Jets fired coach Claude Noël in January and failed to challenge for a playoff spot, the team got off to a dismal 2-5 start this season. The honeymoon was clearly over. New coach Paul Maurice had failed to solve problems that those leaping from the bandwagon quickly convinced themselves were impossible to solve: goaltender Ondrej Pavelec just isn’t good enough, the defence isn’t strong enough, the kids aren’t working out, the team can’t score … The team still doesn’t score much – 40 goals in 20 games – but a lot else is working just fine. The Jets returned from a 10-day, five-game road trip a different team than the one that started this season. In a stretch in which they played nine of 11 games on the road, the Jets had an impressive 6-2-3 record. At the quarter-season mark, they stand a playoff-hopeful sixth in the Western conference with a 10-7-3 record and 23 points.
Pavelec has played very well, but perhaps the greater surprise in goal has been the play of Michael Hutchinson, a third-round pick by the Boston Bruins back in the 2008 draft. The 24-year-old native of Barrie, Ont., was so bad in his first start of the season that he was yanked – yet has a remarkable .971 save percentage since and is 3-1-1.
In an early season when Canadian teams have been the surprise of the NHL – Montreal leading the league, Calgary rising, others contending – the surging Jets have delighted fans that waited patiently for 15 years for the team to return and then waited again for the team to improve.
The reality, however, is that the Jets play in the very tough, often high-scoring Western conference. The Red Wings, once the elite of the West – now transferred to the Eastern Conference – will be a good test as to just how good the revived Jets are.
But no matter what the result Thursday, it is abundantly clear that the only way the Jets can continue to fly high is to score more goals. So inept is their power play – 0-for-5 against the Devils, shutout over the past 18 man advantages – that boos poured down on the team Tuesday night even though the Jets were ahead and the clock had but five minutes to run.
The reason was obvious. The Jets had the power play; the Devils had all the advantage. A power play that scores less than one in 10 tries is not a power play that will take a team into the postseason.
“Clearly,” Maurice said following the win, “the power play is a sore spot for us and it has to get better.”
That said, he was happy to concede that there are a lot of things, apart from the power play, going surprisingly well for the Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s early in the process,” he said, “but it’s been a decent start.”Report Typo/Error