Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where's their heart at home?

Even Jets boss baffled by so many MTS Centre losses

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It's not a rerun, although it sure might seem that way for Winnipeg Jets fans when the curtain rises and closes on the final home production of the 2013-14 season.

There is no sequel after the Boston Bruins pay a visit to the MTS Centre tonight.

There will be no spellbinding dramatic conclusion that will leave the crowd gasping and none of the 15,000-plus congregation will be gnawing their fingernails wondering what might happen next.

The plot, as has been the case in the finale over the first two years, will be exactly the same in the third year: Win or lose, the Jets will gather at centre ice after the final horn and raise their sticks in salute to a loyal fan base that has sold out every game at the little rink in downtown Winnipeg.

And then they'll spend the summer lamenting another season without playoff hockey.

Now, the autopsy on this bunch will continue in the days, weeks and months ahead leading up to the opening of training camp next season. There will be plenty of theories floated and more than a few fingers of blame pointed.

But one of the most disturbing trends for the franchise has to be how home-ice advantage has turned the wrong way for the Jets, who will finish 2013-14 with their worst home record in the three years since their return.

Consider this: Since a four-game win streak in March 2012 -- the first season of the Jets' return -- the MTS Centre has hardly been a tough stop for visitors. Since then, the club is barely treading water at home, having gone 30-30-8 here at the conclusion of 2011-12 through to today's meeting with the mighty Bruins.

In fact, for all the talk about the Jets being pointed in the right direction as a franchise, the hard evidence for those dishing out big bucks to witness it with their own eyes has been really thin.

Case in point: The Jets were 23-13-5 at home in the first year of their rebirth, 13-10-1 in last season's lockout-shortened shmozzle of a season and are just 17-17-6 through 40 MTS Centre dates in 2013-14.

Have any theories on this, Paul Maurice?

"No, I don't," the Jets' boss admitted Wednesday. "I'm aware of the stat, and it's surprising. We're a .500 hockey club on the road in the Western Conference (18-18-4). If you took that stat, put it up on the wall and said, 'Do you think the Winnipeg Jets are making the playoffs?' the answer would be, 'Yes.'

"I know coming in here (as a visiting club) you knew you were in for it early. The building is fantastic. All I will say is I truly believe there will come a time when we get the benefit of home-ice advantage in this building. I don't know why it is what it is this year."

Well, a couple or three basic theories that have been floated before and will be tossed out again here for discussion:

1. Why have the Jets been mediocre at home? We're not talking about a powerhouse here. This is a franchise that has made just one playoff appearance in its existence. They aren't exactly the Broad Street Bullies of the mid-'70s, who could have visiting squads tinkling down their legs before Kate Smith had finished the Star Spangled Banner.

2. Special teams: The Jets had the second-best home power play in 2011-12, but were 26th last year and are 19th this season. Nothing gets the home side squeezing its sticks tighter -- and kills any kind of momentum -- than its own faithful cursing and moaning after another botched man-advantage.

3. The MTS Centre is a great venue: Every seat sold out every night by a raucous, loyal and creative crowd that can get behind the home side and target a star player in enemy colours. That vibe, clearly, can fuel visiting teams who love playing the heel role. Example: Watching Minnesota Wild nutbar goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov soak up the "Illl-yaaaa..." chants by waving his arms asking for more -- while the play was ongoing -- on Monday.

"You know, when you are a road team and you come into a hostile environment, it's just so much fun," explained Evander Kane. "I remember when we were in Atlanta... When we had fans it was great, but when we went on the road into places like Philly and Boston, you really got up for those games.

"I don't know if it's a home-versus-the-road thing; it's more our play. We seem to, for the most part, start well but haven't found a way to get the job done at the end."

Asked how the Jets can make the MTS Centre more of a nightmare place to play, Kane turned the question around and offered this take from another angle.

"Actually, I think we have to make our whole game a nightmare to play against instead," he said. "We've got to be a harder team to play against, whether we're at home or on the road. We have to be hard and tough and have teams not looking forward to playing you.

"And at home, is there a different level to what that can be? You'd like to think so."

All this is part of Maurice's effort to have the Jets establish some sort of identity based on their speed and size, coupled with a monk-like work ethic. That doesn't come with a snap of the fingers, however, but with the establishment of a certain standard that has to be brought to the workplace every day.

Maurice referred to Monday's loss to the Wild as "paint drying," but noted the Jets surrendered only 12 even-strength shots. And he held up Saturday's 4-2 in Toronto as the blueprint they need to follow.

"The Toronto game is more of the way it's supposed to look," Maurice said. "We were on the puck, we were on their D. I'm not talking about trading chances where the crowd goes wild; I'm talking about being in their zone and hunting the puck where the crowd gets going. That's what it's supposed to look like, and we certainly have been, in the last two or three weeks, getting more and more of that.

"We will play a style of game in this building that will get the crowd into it."

That's called a tease in the entertainment industry. And the Jets will have the whole summer to try and change the script for next season.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 D3

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