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Rebirth of a Jets nation

Team, fans set to fly out of starting blocks

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Resume your positions, Jets fans.

They've put you through a torturous 113-day labour dispute followed by a blink-or-you'll-miss-it training camp but whether you're in the MTS Centre or in front of your screens for today's season opener against the Ottawa Senators (2 p.m., CBC, TSN1290), it's time again for the comfort and the routine of the NHL regular season.

The teams are out of the starting blocks today with a condensed 48-game season until April 27. The shortness injects wild-cards into conference races, but no more so than individual-team changes and improvements.

Lockout blip aside, it's expected the vast majority of Jets Nation will pick up where it left off last April -- difficult to improve on that -- trying to hurt the eardrums of opponents and will its team to the playoffs.

Playoffs -- realistic or fantasy?

"You know other teams have made improvements but at the same time, we're going to be a lot better in here, too," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said Friday, the final day of six-day camps. "We have young guys that need to take that next step and we've added a few veteran guys who are going to help us out."

The key adds for the Jets include minute-rich centre Olli Jokinen and veteran winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. And many eyes will be on 19-year-old Mark Scheifele, who for a second straight season will start with the Jets and try to make it permanent.

"Definitely it feels different up front," Ladd said. "Adding Olli and being stronger in the centre position is going to help out a ton. You feel like you have four really strong lines you can put out there against anyone.

"Having that option really helps the pace of our game, which I think is really the key to our success."

The Jets bobbed up and down last season, winding up 11th of 15 in the Eastern Conference. They ran hard at or were in a playoff spot on a couple of occasions but eventually ran out of gas with about two weeks to go.

Some shortcomings were addressed in the off-season. They are bigger up front, have better depth at centre as Ladd said.

Whether other vulnerabilities were fixed -- the team's defensive record and road record were decidedly weak -- only the season will tell for sure.

Jokinen, with his 1,042 games and a fresh set of eyes, sees a team that merits some optimism.

"It's a good team," he said Friday. "It's a lot of players who have been together the last two, three years. A lot of younger players.

"At the same time, to me, I don't like to use that word 'young' too much. Even with Kaner, he's 21, but he's been in the league three years. To me, if you've played 200 games in this league you're not a young player anymore, you know?"

In Kane, who had 30 goals last season, and breakout right-winger Blake Wheeler, who led the team with 64 points, the Jets may have emerging leaders ready for even more.

"There's a lot of excitement here; a lot of the players are ready to take that next step and be better overall players," Jokinen said. "The good thing is that there's one thing in everybody's mind and that's being in the post-season. Tomorrow's Day 1 for us to try to reach that goal."

Kane, who starts into his new six-year contract today, spoke confidently about the season on Friday.

"To be honest, it doesn't feel too different," he said. "There are a lot of familiar faces. Just a couple of new additions. I think we're all better players coming into tomorrow and I'm as confident as I've ever been as far as this team being able to make the playoffs."

That goal seems to be universal in the Jets' room.

But veteran centre Jim Slater made the case for more focus on the now and less on April.

"There's a lot of playoff talk right now. Who knows?" Slater said. "I think if you start worrying about playoffs right now, you could get off to a bad start. Obviously we want to be there and we know what we have to do to get there, it's just a matter of going on the ice and doing it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 C4

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