WINNIPEG - Welcome back.
The NHL returned to Winnipeg with a cold reminder of the challenge that lies ahead, but it did little to dampen the warmth brought on by a massive civic celebration.
As the clock ticked down on Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the sold-out crowd at MTS Centre rose to its feet and gave the Jets a standing ovation that was 15 years in the making.
"That's pretty incredible," said forward Mark Scheifele, who played his first NHL game. "In Barrie when we'd lose, people would be leaving halfway through the second period. Definitely to hear that, to get a standing ovation when we lose, it just shows that we're going to have fans behind us regardless."
Indeed, it appears the honeymoon will last a long time between the fans and a young team that has work to do in order to make good on coach Claude Noel's assertion it can qualify for the playoffs.
A couple glaring turnovers were costly against the opportunistic Canadiens, who bounced back from a loss in their opening game of the season. Ultimately, the Jets were unable to harness much energy from an amped-up crowd following an emotional pre-game ceremony that included a tribute to Rick Rypien and a loud rendition of O Canada.
The players had also endured a long nine-day wait after the end of the exhibition season and as much hype as any of them have ever faced for a regular-season game.
"It was a pretty unique situation," said captain Andrew Ladd. "It's still not an excuse and we have to come up with a way better performance than that. But definitely a different situation and something that you know you're not going to have the chance to do this again.
"It's pretty disappointing with the outcome."
Carey Price had a solid game for Montreal with 30 saves while Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Yannick Weber, Travis Moen and Max Pacioretty each scored.
The roof was nearly blown off the intimate arena when Nik Antropov scored the first goal for the reincarnated Jets early in the third period. Amid growing tension with Price looking unbeatable, he made it 2-1 by driving hard to the net and shovelling a rebound behind the Habs goaltender with Brett MacLean parked in front.
A surge of momentum followed as Winnipeg poured on the pressure in an effort to tie the game, but Weber made it 3-1 while Dustin Byfuglien was serving a questionable interference penalty and the Jets never recovered.
"I thought it was a weak call," said Byfuglien. "I have a feeling it kind of (changed the game), but we've still got to go back to work after it happens."
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.
"We gave up some free pizzas in the middle of the ice," said Noel. "The first one ... that's exactly what good players do. Turnovers result in goals. One chance, and it's in the back of your net."
The return of big-league hockey to Winnipeg had fans celebrating in the streets hours before the puck was even dropped. Cars honked their horns while driving downtown streets and strangers high-fived on the sidewalk—many of whom had dug deep in their closet to pull out vintage Jets sweaters.
The sold-out crowd inside the 15,004-seat building—the smallest in the league—included Bettman, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a number of former players from the original Jets. And the atmosphere was raucous from the moment a pre-game video on the scoreboard ended with the words "It's Time."
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's been completely humbled by the response from the community since buying the Atlanta Thrashers on May 31.
"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 notsure 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 Thrashers finished 12th in the Eastern Conference a year ago and all but four players who dressed for the Jets on Sunday were part of that team.
Noel's challenge will be to get the most out of players like Scheifele, Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov—all of whom are under 21 and being counted on to contribute. The Thrashers were also 29th in goals against last season and the team didn't have a great defensive effort in the opener.
As for the fans, they appear ready to be patient.
Bettman bristled at a question about the long-term viability of the second NHL team to call the city home—"We have no reason to believe anything other than this team will be a huge success," he said—while Chipman talked about the spirit of its inhabitants.
"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."
The hockey team must now follow suit.
Notes: Cammalleri and Jaroslav Spacek each left the game with injuries and didn't return for Montreal ... The 50-50 winner took home more than $70,000 ... Winnipeg's next game comes on Thursday in Chicago ... Scheifele played 13:44 in his NHL debut.