WINNIPEG (Reuters) - The Winnipeg Jets and their fans proved on Saturday that when it comes to ice hockey and throwing a party they are up there with the best as they beat the Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 in Game One of the NHL’s West Conference Finals.
Never before had Winnipeg thrown such a bash and with good reason.
This is uncharted air space for the Jets and tens of thousands of their fans were drawn to the downtown core of the city to be a part of the achievement.
A well-deserved victory over the expansion Golden Knights also gave Winnipegers a prime time stage to hit back at all the punchlines and jabs they have absorbed over the decades.
“Winter-Peg”, “Windy-Peg”, weary Winnipegers have heard them all but on Saturday the Jets and their supporters reminded an ice hockey mad country that “The Peg” is Canada’s last hope this season to end a 25-year Stanley Cup drought.
“We’ve been the gum on Canada’s shoe for a long time, everyone looks down on Winnipeg,” said fan Adam Williscroft, decked out in his Jets jersey with the accessory of the day - a can of beer in hand. “But not now, not today.
“Today we are in the limelight.”
The National Hockey League’s smallest market Winnipeg sits at what is recognized as the crossroads of Canada, “Portage and Main”, which is often referred to as the nation’s coldest and windiest corner.
This advertisement does not scream party destination but it does say welcome to ice hockey country.
Saturday was a huge celebration, but the champagne is still on ice. A Stanley Cup party will require three more Jets victories to lock up the best-of-seven series.
“Best fans in the league by far,” praised Jets forward Mark Scheifele, who had a goal and set up another. “We feed off them.
“They are a big part of why we are here. We live it.
“Hopefully we can give them a lot more to cheer about.”
The buzz began early as a trickle of fans ambled towards party central — the Bell MTS Place.
By mid-afternoon, the trickle had turned into a flood as white clad fans packed the core for what has become known as “The WhiteOut”.
With each Jets victory officials have had to add blocks and blocks to the fan zone around the arena to accommodate revelers.
Fearing the street party had reached a critical point the city made Saturday’s event an invitation only affair for 25,000 who would need a ticket to enter the fun zone.
Those free tickets were scooped up in a matter of minutes and were soon appearing online with sellers asking $25 or more.
Just 65 seconds after the puck dropped the party kicked into overdrive when Dustin Byfuglien took a drop pass from Scheifele and rifled it past Las Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
Patrik Laine and Joel Armia added quick fire goals 46 second apart to put Winnipeg up 3-0 before the midway mark of the first period.
The Golden Knights pulled one back before the end of the period on a goal from Brayden McNabb that trimmed the deficit to two but they would get no closer.
The teams traded goals in a more even second period Scheifele, counting for the Jets and William Karlsson for Las Vegas, before Winnipeg netminder Connor Hellebuyck shut door in a scoreless third.
Additional reporting by Rod Nickle; Editing by Peter Rutherford