Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets plan to feed off fans, improve on middling home record

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It's not any one chant or singular moment Mark Stuart remembers most. Not the fans belting out "True North!" during the national anthem, the mocking serenade of "Crosby's better!" aimed at Alex Ovechkin or "Silver medal!" fired at Buffalo Sabres and USA Olympian goaltender Ryan Miller.

All that can become a permanent deposit in a man's memory bank, no doubt.

But what really jumped out for the veteran Winnipeg Jets defenceman during that first season of home games at the MTS Centre was the buzz, that absolute rush, he felt when he pulled on his jersey, buckled up his chinstrap and walked down the tunnel to the ice.

And on many nights during the that 2011-12 season, that buzz wasn't dialed down until well after the final horn.

"It's the excitement, first and foremost. That's what sticks for me," said Stuart on Friday, not long after the Jets had completed final preparations for their 2013 debut against the Ottawa Senators. "As soon as you get out there for the warm-up you can feel the energy in the building. Any time you are at home and you get that kind of energy, you can feed off it. It has to help you. It helped us out big-time last year.

"There's points in a game where you need that extra boost sometimes -- you're up by a goal and you're pinned down in your own end, the goalie makes a big save and the crowd goes nuts. That's huge."

That was then, as they say, this is now. And if the Jets are going to build on the reputation that their barn -- the smallest in the NHL -- is a road-trip nightmare for opponents, then it has to continue into the condensed 48-game schedule that is the 2013 regular season and beyond into the playoffs.

In one season the MTS Centre, always packed with 15,004 fanatics, was dubbed one of the NHL's loudest and the Jets fed from that, finishing with a 23-13-5 home record. But for as solid as the Jets were at home, their record was just 15th overall -- middle of the pack.

Remember, too, that this team crashed and burned down the stretch of the '11-12 campaign, dropping its final four at home. And the start wasn't exactly memorable either, as the Jets were just 5-4 at home through November 2011.

Still, it was during the stretch in between -- an 18-5-5 run at home between Dec. 1 and March 16 -- when the joint was regularly jumping. And that's what this edition of the Jets wants to re-create night in, night out, this season.

"Our home record speaks for itself. We're pretty confident in that," said Evander Kane. "If you look at the end of our schedule, even though I don't like to look too far ahead, we play seven of our last nine games at home so if we can give ourselves a chance for the first 30 games of the season, coming into those last 10 games, we're feeling pretty confident.

"(Saturday's) Game 1 and it's going to be very important to start off with a win."

Understandably, the Jets' horrible road record last year -- a 14-22-5 mark that was 27th overall -- became one of the team's obvious flaws often discussed in the season-ending autopsies.

But with room to grow at home as well, the Jets see an obvious route to a post-season berth.

The carrot dangling in front of them? Just imagine what the MTS Centre might be like for a meaningful game in late April.

"You can't really explain what it's like for a game here," said Chris Thorburn. "I just say, you have to come to a game. It's crazy. The atmosphere is something that you just can't explain.

"My best buddy back home, my friends, even my family, they ask me about it, they want to know what it's like. You can maybe get a feel for it on TV, but unless you're in the stands, taking part in all the chants, you're not experiencing it. I tell them if you have a chance to do it, it's definitely something they should check out.

"And it's something we want to continue this year."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 C3

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Updated on Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 10:50 AM CST: replaces photos

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