Winnipeg Jets:- The NHL returned to Winnipeg with a cold reminder of the challenge that lies ahead.Carey Price stopped 30 shots as the Montreal Canadiens put a damper on a massive civic celebration with a 5-1 victory over the Jets on Sunday.
The return of big-league hockey to the city had fans celebrating in the streets hours before the puck was dropped and car horns honking outside the MTS Centre throughout the afternoon. Virtually everyone was decked out in Jets gear — both new and old.
With so much of the pre-game focus on the anticipation surrounding the NHL’s return after 15 years, the performance of the team itself almost seemed secondary. But that changed in a hurry with a sloppy game by the Jets that suggested they have plenty of work to do to become the playoff team coach Claude Noel believes they can be.
Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Yannick Weber, Travis Moen and Max Pacioretty scored for the opportunistic Canadiens, who bounced back from a 2-0 loss in Toronto to open the season.
Nik Antropov replied for Winnipeg.
The roof was nearly blown off the intimate arena when he scored the first goal for the reincarnated Jets at 2:27 of the third period. The growing tension was palpable before Antropov drove hard to the net and shovelled a rebound behind Price to make it 2-1.
A surge of momentum followed as Winnipeg poured on the pressure in an effort to tie the game.
But Montreal soon went back ahead by two after Weber scored on a one-timer at 4:51 while Dustin Byfuglien was serving a questionable intereference penalty. Moen’s breakaway goal at 10:31 and Pacioretty’s perfectly placed wrist shot at 12:33 ended any hope for a fairy-tale comeback.
Montreal was a hand-picked opening night opponent for the Jets — “We thought it would be a terrific matchup,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — but it didn’t play the role of gracious guest. Price was particularly sharp and the Habs took advantage of two Johnny Oduya turnovers to build a 2-0 lead.
The first ended up on the stick of Cammalleri, who quickly beat Ondrej Pavelec with a nice wrist shot at 3:05 of the first period. Plekanec made it 2-0 at 14:17 of the second period after winning a puck battle with Oduya.
The soldout 15,004-seat building — the NHL’s smallest — was rocking before the game. Fans rose to their feet after a pre-game video montage that ended with the words “It’s Time,” applauded a touching tribute to former Manitoba Moose player Rick Rypien and belted out the words to “O Canada” along with Chantal Kreviazuk and Jim Cuddy.
It was the kind of scene owner Mark Chipman had long imagined in his dreams while plotting a way to convince the NHL to return. He seemed genuinely humbled by the emotion in the city and the building.
“I know how it happened,” Chipman said of the NHL’s return. “I can go back over the past 16 years and I can tell people how it happened, but I’m not sure why it happened. I’ve had an enormous amount of good things happen to me and I’m not sure why that is. I struggle with that one.
“Even when I do pinch myself, it doesn’t come to me.”
He’s as competitive as any owner in the league and will be expecting better things in the weeks ahead. The Atlanta Thrashers finished 12th in the Eastern Conference a year ago and all but four players from that team were in the lineup on Sunday.
Even with a loss in the opener, the fan support won’t waver. The city has endured more than its share of adversity.
“I’m glad that people feel so good about this, I really am,” said Chipman. “It is a great city and it has been for a long time. I think it became an even greater city, to be honest with you, after the NHL left in ’96. Rather than sort of wallow in self pity and roll up the sidewalks, I think the community really dug in.”