Back in October when the Winnipeg Jets officially returned to the NHL, fans at the MTS Centre were delighted just to once again have a team of their own.
In fact, when the Jets were routed 5-1 by the Montreal Canadiens in their home and season opener on Oct. 9, the rabid fans at the cozy arena in downtown Winnipeg spent the last few minutes of regulation on their feet, cheering wildly for the new home team despite the lopsided loss.
Presently, the hometown crowds at the MTS Centre have found more positive news to cheer about, as the Jets have defied all odds to make a serious run at a postseason berth.
From the time the Atlanta Thrashers entered the NHL prior to the 1999-2000 season until they relocated to Winnipeg last summer, the franchise made just one trip to the playoffs. That came back in the spring of 2007, when Atlanta won the Southeast Division title only to get swept in four games by the New York Rangers.
Making the postseason also appeared to be a long shot for the Jets heading into this season. After all, they are still playing in the Southeast, where their nearest divisional foe is located over 1,500 miles away in Washington, D.C.
Of course, having a divisional opponent located in Manitoba is not exactly easy for the other teams in the Southeast, but the Jets would seem to have the toughest travel situation in the division, and possibly the NHL.
As it turns out, the Jets received a favorable schedule from the NHL and is actually only going to travel about 550 miles more during the 2011-12 regular season than it did during its last season in Atlanta. In fact, Winnipeg will travel over 8,000 miles less this season than its division rival, the Florida Panthers.
Even though Winnipeg's travel situation could have been much worse, the club has still learned to cherish its home dates, as the games played in front of the home crowd are the biggest reason for the Jets' surprising standing in the Eastern Conference.
The Jets enter Tuesday's action as the eighth seed in the East and are just two points behind Florida for the Southeast Division lead. Winnipeg can thank the hometown edge for much of its success this season, as the club is 21-10-4 on home ice compared to an 11-17-4 mark away from the MTS Centre.
Although the MTS Centre is a relatively new building, having opened in 2004, with a capacity of 15,004, it is easily the smallest arena currently operating in the NHL. That's why the Jets are ranked 25th in league attendance despite selling out all 34 of its home games this season.
But, what the MTS Centre lacks in size it makes up for with the volume and passion of the local fans. After playing to crowds in Atlanta that filled up about three-quarters of the much-larger Philips Arena over the last few years, the Jets are really responding to the loud and boisterous mobs that gather at the tinier building in Winnipeg.
Monday night, the Jets fed off that hometown energy to post an important 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, a team that is chasing Winnipeg for the final playoff seed in the East. With the game nearing a conclusion, the 15,000-plus chanted "Sil-ver med-al, sil-ver med-al" in unison at Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, reminding the American netminder how he and Team USA came up short two years earlier in the Gold Medal Game at the Vancouver Olympics.
Moments like that really emphasize the level of joy in Winnipeg now that the Jets are back in town. From the start of this season, it's been clear the current fan base in Winnipeg has placed having fun ahead of the team's initial success. The city spent 15 years after the departure of the original Jets to Phoenix wondering if it would ever get another NHL franchise and the 2011-12 campaign has fittingly taken on a celebratory tone in Winnipeg.
It's great to see the party atmosphere has actually helped the ex-Thrashers pick up their games on the ice. Jets head coach Claude Noel has witnessed how playing in front of these passionate fans can instill the same type of fervor in his team.
"We've asked our players to leave everything on the ice and I think they've done a really good job of pouring everything they can into the game," Noel said after the win over Buffalo. "To me it's evident with the passion they're playing with and we're getting rewarded for that."
The win over the Sabres put an end to a 5-1-2 homestand for the Jets, but Winnipeg will likely need to improve its play on the road to get into the postseason. Of their 15 remaining tests in the regular season, the Jets will play nine of them away from the hostile atmosphere of the MTS Centre and seven of Winnipeg's final 10 games will take place outside of Manitoba.
With a tight race shaping up for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the Jets may have too few home games left to make it to the postseason. However, if they can find a way to play better on the road in the last few weeks of the season, a playoff spot, or even a division title, will likely be within reach.
Having the Jets in the playoffs would not only be exciting for the people of Winnipeg, it also should be considered a prize for hockey fans everywhere. If the atmosphere in the season-opening blowout loss to the Canadiens could be called electric, just think what a postseason game at the MTS Centre will be like. The word nuclear comes to mind.