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Expect the Jets and Wild to put defence first when Central Division rivals collide Thursday

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Here comes the start of the main attraction of the 2013-14 NHL season for the Winnipeg Jets.

Thursday marks their first start inside the new Central Division with a game at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., against the Minnesota Wild.

The Jets have 29 games against Central rivals this season and this one's the first of five against their closest geographical foe.

"The division games are important because you know in your division, the top three teams are getting a bye into the playoffs," Jets coach Claude Noel said after the team's practice Tuesday at the MTS Iceplex. "So after that it's just a battle. But they're always important; they're four-point games if you can get them clean."

With the move to the new division and also to the Western Conference, the Jets are finding out many things are not as they were when they resided in the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference for the Atlanta years, and for two map-misfit years in the Manitoba capital.

One item showed itself strongly Friday night at the MTS Centre. Even though the Jets won the game 5-3, they found the Los Angeles Kings to be as stern an opponent as they've ever seen.

"We're finding there's a difference between the east and the west," Noel said. "We're finding it in the faceoff circle, for example, in talking to the players. They find it quite a bit different there. So these are some adjustments."

In their three games, though they've managed to win two of them, the Jets are barely 41 per cent in the faceoff circle.

Jets centre Jim Slater, who confirmed that difference on Tuesday, said it's pretty clear life is going to be a challenge in both the Central and the west.

"We know Minnesota's going to be one of those teams in the end that's going to be in the playoffs or fighting for a spot," Slater said. "We want to be a team like that, too, so to get wins against divisional opponents is crucial early in the year."

Slater thinks Thursday's affair will be the expected new style: tight.

"We're looking forward to getting this division thing started," he said. "I know we'll have Jets fans down there cheering us on. It's the start of something good, I believe."

And on the matter of cheering, Jets right-winger Devin Setoguchi was downplaying his return to the Xcel Energy Center, where he played two seasons for the Wild before being traded to the Jets last summer.

"Really, it's just another hockey game just played against some friends I know from last year," Setoguchi said. "But it's a big game for us as a group. You never want to lose back-to-back games. You've got to refocus and start over again.

"We're going into Minny with a good mentality, trying to get off to a better start, to play the game the way we can, do what we can control and not worry about them."

Setoguchi said he's expecting nothing unusual from fans on Thursday.

"I got traded out of there, so it's not like they should boo me or anything," he said. "Let's hope not. But who cares. They went a different direction; no hard feelings on both sides and I don't think I should be getting a bad reception."

The Taber, Alta., native said he's way more concerned about being on the winning side Thursday night.

"It's going to be a big game no matter what," he said. "We want to win; don't want to lose back-to-back games."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2013 D1

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Updated on Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 6:01 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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