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No, the roof didn’t come off Bell MTS Place, even if the decibel level was higher than it’s been all season.
But if you’ve ever wondered just what home-ice advantage looks and sounds like — or why NHL teams spend a gruelling, six-month regular season striving for it — the raucous scene that played out Saturday night inside the downtown Winnipeg barn was Exhibit A.
And don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his players had to say in the aftermath of a 5-0 beatdown of their arch-nemesis from Nashville that not only locked down a playoff spot, but put the local club in firm control of the Central Division with less than two weeks to go in the regular season.
“It felt as close to a playoff game in the building. Right from the national anthems, there was a buzz. You know what? I really think we needed that. I was worried about this one, more for just coming off the west coast. This is our toughest stretch, where would the emotional level be? The fans didn’t give you a chance not to be wired. You could feel it on the bench. It was great,” Maurice said.
‘The crowd was awesome.They were so loud and into it…This whole city is ready for playoffs’ — Connor Hellebuyck
For the record, this was not a response to a softball “Hey, wasn’t the crowd great?” question. Maurice dished out the praise without prompting, and his comments about how the noise gave his team a much-needed boost were certainly interesting given just how much jump his squad clearly had.
As an aside, so was his mention about “right from the national anthems.” The Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus contributed to the big-game feel with powerful, goosebump-inducing renditions of The Star Spangled Banner and O Canada that had the joint jumping off the hop. According to the group itself, they’ve now performed before five Jets games — with the home team going 5-0-0 and outscoring opponents by a whopping 30-11 margin.
Memo to True North: perhaps you should be talking to Hoosli about clearing some space on their calendars in April, May and June?
“That was a little bit different buzz than we’ve had in the building all year. Everyone was fired up for this one. We fed off that. I thought it was our best game of the year,” captain Blake Wheeler added.
Wheeler won’t say it, but I will: Bell MTS Place has been noticeably muted for much of the year. At first, I thought it was just the contrast coming off last year’s extended playoff run and Whiteout that spilled into the streets and had Winnipeg at the centre of the hockey map. But as the season has gone on and the wins kept coming, the crowds have seemingly gone mild compared to what we’ve all seen and heard in the past.
After all, Bell MTS Place was just voted as having the fifth-best atmosphere in the league, behind only Vegas, Montreal, Nashville and Chicago based on an NHLPA survey of more than 500 players. But it hasn’t exactly lived up to that reputation so far this season.
Maybe it was a prolonged playoff hangover. Perhaps the novelty has indeed worn off a bit here in year eight since the NHL returned. Or a case of the bar rightfully being raised, where fans no longer just hope the Jets win but now expect it. Or just pacing themselves and resting the vocal chords for when the time is right.
If so, it appears that time has arrived.
“First in Central,” the chants rained down late in the third period Saturday as fans clearly sensed a first division title in franchise history is now very much in sight. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who recorded an impressive 33-save shutout, heard it loud and clear.
“The crowd was awesome. They were so loud and into it. That really helped us carry some momentum and really helped us get into this game. They were chanting, and that’s what you get in playoffs. This whole city is ready for playoffs,” Hellebuyck said.
It appears he and his teammates are as well. After a bit of a predictable dud in the desert last Thursday to wrap up a tough three-games-in-four-nights road trip, the Jets quickly got back to recent form and took another big step in the right direction with their most complete, 60-minute effort of the season against a Predators team that seemed to have no answers.
A loss against Nashville and it would have been a tight, three-way race to the finish line between the Jets, Predators and the red-hot St. Louis Blues. Now, the Jets have opened up some breathing room.
“Biggest game of the year up to this point and they’re just better than us. It’s disappointing,” a very blunt Nashville defenceman Roman Josi said following the game
That certainly bodes well considering Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey remain out of the lineup, with both expected to be back in time for playoffs. Even if the Jets are being very careful not to get caught looking too far down the road.
“We can’t get satisfied. We’ve got to know that we can bring it, but we’ve got to know it’s hard work. And we’ve got to come back tomorrow and the next day and know that when you’re at the rink, it’s all or nothing,” said Hellebuyck, who is 4-0-0 in his past four starts with two shutouts and a 1.00 goals-against-average, stopping 129 of 133 shots.
That’s the right attitude to have, of course. There’s no time to coast or rest on laurels, and simply making the playoffs wasn’t the ultimate goal here. It’s to be the last team standing later this spring.
If that were to happen, you might want to have some earplugs at the ready and construction workers on standby because the roof at Bell MTS Place may indeed be blown right off.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.