They gathered by the thousands at a downtown park, showed up to the MTS Centre four hours before game time and even cheered NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Then Winnipeggers and Jets fans across the country watched their team get pasted by the Montreal Canadiens.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Anticipation had been building all week in the city for the season opener, with outdoor concerts, parties, promotions and near mayhem. The league had even hand-picked Montreal as the Jets first opponent, certain the match-up would generate a national audience. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on hand for the game, described the event as “a historic day for Canadian hockey.” Everyone, including the Canadiens, expected the Jets to start the game almost rabid, buoyed by the raucous crowd.
“We know they are going to come out flying they are going to use their crowd to back them up. So we have got to try and weather that storm,” Habs defenceman Josh Gorges said before the game.
But the storm didn’t happen and the Jets never really got off the ground. Montreal not only controlled play from the start but scored barely three minutes into the game on the team’s second shot on goal. Worse for the Jets, the goal by Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri came after Jet defenceman Johnny Oduya mishandled a pass. Oduya got caught again in the second period when Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec poked the puck around him, managed a short breakaway and fired a shot over Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
The Jets had more than enough chances. Montreal took eight penalties and handed the Jets a two-man advantage at one point. But their efforts were easily stopped by Montreal goaltender Carey Price. Whatever flu or issues Price was suffering last week after the team lost its opener to the Toronto Maple Leafs were long gone. He looked poised and made several saves that kept Montreal in the game.
It wasn’t until the third period when the crowd finally found something to cheer about. The Jets suddenly took life and Nik Antropov scored the team’s lone goal in a scramble after defenceman Mark Stuart blasted a shot from the blueline. Fired up, the crowd began chanting and hoping, finally, that their enthusiasm would lift the team. It didn’t happen. The chanted quickly ended when their star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien got called for interference, sending him to the penalty box for the second time in the game. Byfuglien protested, the Canadiens scored and then scored twice more.
“It was a weak call,” Byfuglien said after the game.
As the game wore down, some fans started a plaintiff “Go Jets Go” chant. Others caught on but it didn’t last long. Still, as the clock wound down, almost no one had left and the crowd gave the Jets a standing ovation.
After the game, Jets head coach Claude Noel fired off a string of issues, from failed second attempts on goals to multiple turnovers. “We gave up some free pizzas in the mid of the ice,” he said.
Referring to the crowd and the pregame celebrations which included a video tribute to the Jets’ history, Noel said: “I don’t think we were overwhelmed, I think the end result was overwhelming.”
His assessment of 18-year old forward Mark Schiefele, who was the team’s best player during the preseason, was cautious. Schiefele has been the talk of Winnipeg for weeks with speculation the club would keep him for the season instead of returning him to his junior hockey team. But on Sunday, he looked out of place at times and didn’t see substantial playing time. “He was okay,” Noel said, adding quickly that he still liked the player.
While Noel noted some positives, such as a high energy level, others on the team were less upbeat. When team captain Andrew Ladd was asked if he felt anything good about the game, he replied: “Not much. You’ve got to kind of get [ticked]and expect more from each other.”
Montreal coach Jacques Martin came into the game knowing the crowd would be a big factor. “It’s a special day,” he said before the game. “And a long wait for the people of Winnipeg and I think that’s great.”
But he wasn’t conceding anything, saying tersely that the Canadiens needed a win after getting off to a bad start. They got their win and managed to poke a small hole in Winnipeg’s bubble.