The Winnipeg Jets opened their preseason schedule on Sunday with a 3-2 overtime loss against the visiting Ottawa Senators, but the night was never about winning or losing. After 566 days, a good chunk of which included mostly empty seats here at Canada Life Centre, the Jets opened their doors to thousands of vaccinated fans as a precursor to what will be mostly full buildings across the NHL in 2021-22.

The Winnipeg Jets opened their preseason schedule on Sunday with a 3-2 overtime loss against the visiting Ottawa Senators, but the night was never about winning or losing. After 566 days, a good chunk of which included mostly empty seats here at Canada Life Centre, the Jets opened their doors to thousands of vaccinated fans as a precursor to what will be mostly full buildings across the NHL in 2021-22.

And that alone was a victory in and of itself.

"You can smell the popcorn when you come out to the bench, that’s the first nice start," Maurice said. "Then it just feels so much better than it was even almost in the playoffs. I mean, it was an exhibition game so there isn’t anywhere near the intensity of it but having people in the building is fantastic. Just visually from the bench, it’s more fun."

The Jets, as well as the other six Canadian teams, were shutout from allowing spectators for the 2021 regular season owing to health protocols in place to battle an ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. There was some flexibility come playoffs, including in Winnipeg, where 500 frontline workers were invited for a rare glimpse of live hockey in the prairies.

Even with limited fans, the in-house game production remained much the same, with artificial crowd noise pumped in, continuing a lack of atmosphere inside the arena despite the on-ice stakes being as high as ever. There was no need to boost the volume on Sunday, as an announced crowd of 14,625 rose from its seats to welcome a Jets lineup that was missing a sizeable amount of their star players.

Winnipeg Jets' fans cheer after the Jets scored during the first period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Jets' fans cheer after the Jets scored during the first period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

The evening opened with the Jets showing off their new on-ice projection system, spilling graphics all over the playing surface as the crowd noise strengthened. Then came recognition of all the hard work done by front line workers throughout the pandemic, a land acknowledgement identifying the game was being played on Treaty One lands and a national anthem by Stacey Nattress that elicited energetic screams of "True North".

Hockey is officially back.

"It hurts to smile right now, but I would if I could," Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "I’m not in the greatest mood right now, but having the fans there obviously helped a lot. Probably getting back out there with 15 stitches without any fans would have been a little harder for the motivation side of it in preseason. But having fans out there was great. I had goosebumps going out on the ice. They were great tonight. It just feels like real hockey again. It feels good."

Winnipeg Jets' CJ Suess (73) is checked by Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson (60) during the second period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Jets' CJ Suess (73) is checked by Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson (60) during the second period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

Once the puck dropped, it was much like you'd expect from two teams that hadn't played organized hockey in months. There was plenty of sloppy play as new systems were being employed and a lack of chemistry from lines, some of which were newly formed. Oh, and a ton of penalties, with a combined 15 power plays between both teams.

Jets defenceman Logan Stanley led the Jets in penalty minutes, with seven, including five minutes for fighting Austin Watson.

"Everyone’s going out there to win a hockey game. But there’s different aspects we’re trying to work on," Stanley said. "Systems and getting reps in and working on certain things. Obviously, there’s lots of different guys that you haven’t played with before and younger players. Of course, we’re trying to win, but at the end of the day as long as we get better that’s the important thing."

Ottawa Senators’ Alex Formenton (10) celebrates his goal with teammates Andrew Agozzino (23) and Tyler Ennis (63) during the third period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

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Ottawa Senators’ Alex Formenton (10) celebrates his goal with teammates Andrew Agozzino (23) and Tyler Ennis (63) during the third period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

The Jets were without their top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and captain Blake Wheeler and only dressed half of their projected top-6 on defence, with Josh Morrissey, Nate Schmidt and Dylan DeMelo also sidelined. Eric Comrie was in for No. 1 goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, with Mikhail Berdin backing him up.

Still, just the fact hockey was back seemed like enough to cheer for, as well as a highlight reel goal by Ottawa that even if you didn't like as a Jets fan you had to appreciate. Senators forward Ridly Greig opened the scoring 11:30 into the first period, executing a behind-the-back-and-through-the-legs move that fooled Jets defenceman Ville Heinola before sniping a back-handed shot high on Eric Comrie.

"It was a good move. I got to look back at the video, but I think I might have been caught a little bit far," Comrie, who finished with 24 saves, said. "He snuck a good backhand, I think our defenceman played it pretty well, he kept it to the outside. It’s my job to get over there and take the short side."

Winnipeg Jets' fans look on during the first period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Jets' fans look on during the first period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

The Jets evened the score late in the opening frame with a power-play goal from Dubois, who played hot potato with the puck in front of the net with Jansen Harkins before burying it behind former Jet Anton Forsberg with 37 seconds left on the clock. There's perhaps no greater pressure on a Jets player to perform this season than Dubois after an up-and-down season in Winnipeg last year.

C.J. Suess gave Winnipeg its first lead of the game 2:13 into the second period, taking a pass from Brenden Dillon up the right side before snapping a high shot short side on Forsberg. That would the only goal of the period, but controversy would strike by the midway mark of the frame after Greig delivered a nasty crosscheck to the face of Dubois.

Dubois was left reeling from the hit and went straight to the locker room, tossing his gloves down the hall on his way. It was originally called a double-minor for high sticking but was upgraded upon review to a five-minute penalty and game misconduct.

Winnipeg Jets' Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) carries the puck around Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson (60) and Erik Brannstrom (26) during the third period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Jets' Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) carries the puck around Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson (60) and Erik Brannstrom (26) during the third period. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

That seemed to spark the Jets, who outshot the Senators 15-1 in the period but only had a one-goal edge heading into the third. Ottawa would make the most of the third period, evening the score at the 12:17 mark with a goal from Alex Forementon to send it to overtime.

Shane Pinto scored 25 seconds into the extra period to seal the win for Ottawa.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.