WINNIPEG — Bryan Little hasn’t forgotten the sight and sound of the Winnipeg whiteout.
The excitement the Jets created for their loud, white-clad fans when they made last season’s NHL playoffs is fuelling the veteran forward and his teammates as they get set for another campaign.
“I think it stuck with everyone over the whole summer,” Little said before Winnipeg’s exhibition game Thursday at home against Calgary.
“For me, it was a great experience. But you just get the feeling in the dressing room that we want to experience more of it.â€¦ We’re all hungry to see what else we can do.”
The Jets had qualified for the playoffs for the first time since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011, but the joy didn’t last long as they were swept out of the first round by the Anaheim Ducks.
The season was still viewed as an accomplishment, as the club set a Jets/Thrashers’ franchise record with 99 points and tied a franchise record for wins (43-26-13).
It was also achieved despite injuries to key players and a goalie duo in veteran Ondrej Pavelec and rookie Michael Hutchinson that sometimes rotated.
It appears Pavelec will be in net for the team’s first regular-season game on the road against the Bruins on Oct. 8.
“We haven’t set our Game 1, but I would lay odds that he’ll get the first start in Boston,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “And then there will be no plan set in stone.”
He noted his handling of the netminders last season was based on what gave the team the best chance at the time.
“We’re comfortable now because we’ve done it in the past. We can go to a rotation if we need.â€¦ I just don’t know that we’ve decided to stick with one (goalie).”
Pavelec, 28, is ready to lead the team like he did down the stretch last season, when he posted a franchise-record three straight shutouts. He finished with a 22-16-8 mark and career highs for save percentage (.920), goals against average (2.28) and five shutouts.
“Anything can happen,” Pavelec said. “The season’s really long and every player wants to play the games. Yes, I want to be the guy.
“It was huge that we made the playoffs and that we’d been waiting for so many years to do it and finally we did it. It’s good to know that I can help the team to get to the playoffs.”
What will be different for Pavelec and Hutchinson this season is some of the guys in front of them.
Gone from last season’s team are veteran forwards Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Jim Slater and Jiri Tlusty. In their places could be an infusion of youth as the Jets continue with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s draft-and-develop strategy.
Nikolaj Ehlers, the team’s 19-year-old 2014 first-round draft pick (ninth overall), and Nic Petan, 20, appear on the verge of cracking the lineup.
“I’ve been impressed with them all camp,” Little said. “Those guys are mature way beyond their years.”
Maurice has been juggling lines, but Ehlers has skated with centre Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault.
Petan, whom Maurice said handles the puck well and is a “power-play guy,” could add skill to a fourth line with rookie centre Andrew Copp, 21, and veteran Chris Thorburn.
The coach isn’t concerned about the mix of youth and veterans, which include a happy Dustin Byfuglien starting the season on defence and forward Andrew Ladd coming off a career-high for points (62). Both veterans are in the last year of their contracts.
Forward Alexander Burmistrov is also back with the club following two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. He’s been shuffled in line combinations, including with Ladd and Little.
Maurice believes the new roster will maintain its hard-hitting style.
“We’re not coming off that idea, that intensity, that compete,” he said. “It was the reason that we had success here. The sole reason.
“For a lot of nights, our systems weren’t perfect. We didn’t move the puck perfectly, but we just worked so hard and that will be who we are.”