WINNIPEG — Finally, it is Winnipeg’s turn. At last, after all these years of front row seats to someone else’s run towards a Stanley Cup, Jets fans are cheering on a dominant, stacked home team that left someone else in their dust in Round 1.
Finally, Jets fans have a team that can take them somewhere, without a dynasty Oilers or Blackhawks club standing in their road. They are Western Canada’s team this morning. By Monday they’ll likely be Canada’s team — if they aren’t already.
“I’m not pinching myself. I’m not,” said one of the original Jets 2.0, Blake Wheeler, who came with this team from Atlanta for the 2011-12 season. “This isn’t a fairy tale. It feels real, so I’m staying in the moment.”
For the first time in Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise history, the Jets won a playoff series Friday, closing out the Minnesota Wild in five games with a 5-0 blow out. The Wild didn’t score a goal in the last seven periods of this series, and there wasn’t a player, coach, GM or scribe who left Bell MTS Place Friday wondering which was the superior team — injuries or no.
Winnipeg Police shut down the historic intersection of Portage and Main, announcing in a tweet, “This is your night #Winnipeg.”
This series wasn’t just a clinic. It was part tutorial, part dedication, to Manitoba fans fed a steady diet of solid pros like Doug Smail and Brent Ashton over the years, but far too few Dale Hawerchuks and Teemu Selannes.
From Pokey to the Bandit, from Mike Eagles to Dallas Eakins, from Andrew McBain to Wayne McBean — Jets fans usually had something less than the best in any matchup. Not this spring.
This time, 25-year-old Mark Scheifele was twice the player that 34-year-old Eric Staal was, while Winnipeg’s six-foot-three Finn (Patrik Laine) looked like the future, as Minnesota’s six-foot-three Finn (35-year-old Mikko Koivu) approaches the past.
“It’s a good feeling for this town right now,” sad veteran Matt Hendricks, a late replacement for the injured Nikolaj Ehlers. “In my opinion, we’ve got a darned good team. We’ve got depth, we’ve got key players in key positions who have met or exceeded expectations… We’ve got a good thing going here.”
And boy oh boy, do these people deserve it.
This may be the Canadian Football League’s best market, yet the Blue Bombers haven’t rewarded their fans with a Grey Cup in 28 years. The CFL has been an eight-team circuit for much of that time, yet the Bombers always find a way to implode.
As a Western hockey town, Winnipeg has been the poor sister of the sports landscape since the day the National Hockey League allowed the Jets into their league — then promptly stole all their best players in the World Hockey Association expansion draft.
It was a railway town in an airline world during the ‘80s, and in the only two playoff series ever won ever by an NHL team here — in 1985 and 1987 — the reward was a Smythe Division Finals against Edmonton. That was the ’85 Edmonton Oilers, voted the greatest team ever assembled as part of the NHL’s 100th anniversary celebration, and the ’87 Oilers, a team some in Edmonton think was even better.
In the past decade, the Jets have been in Chicago’s Division, watching from the golf course while the Blackhawks won three Cups. Fans have always had a good view of the Cup winners — they’re just always wear someone else’s uniform.
“They lost their team. They didn’t know if they were ever going to see an NHL team here again,” said Bryan Little, another original Jet who scored Friday. “Guys that were here that first year, you could tell just how much this hockey team meant to (Jets fans). Playing in Atlanta I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to experience playing on a team like this and playing in a city like this, where hockey is loved this much. I just feel lucky to be a part of it.
“It’s nights like tonight you see just how much they love it and support us.”
The Jets scored on their first shot Friday, as Jacob Trouba roamed in from the right point just 31 seconds into the game. Then they scored again on their fourth shot, when Little made dangerous a harmless Dustin Byfuglien wrist shot, tipping it perfectly against the grain on a sliding Dubnyk.
This one was over before it started, with two more Jets goals at 11:10 and 11:59 of the first period, a stress-free win that had the fans chanting ‘WE WANT NASHVILLE!” before they even dropped a puck in Tennessee.
But there has been enough drama here, from children breaking open their piggy banks in hopes it might help the Jets stay back in ‘96, to Evander Kane’s antics, to a promise of a contender that just never, ever seemed to get fulfilled.
On Friday, 5-0 was exciting. Garbage time just let the coronation start a little earlier.
We know, it’s only one round.
Let ‘em enjoy it here. They’ll come back to earth sometime Monday.