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Winnipeg Jets' hometown thrilled by long-delayed return to playoffs

Fans of Winnipeg Jets, Ducks' first-round opponent, are said to have 'parental caring' about the team

Not only is Paul Maurice a playoff-bound hockey coach, he also happens to be the teacher/caretaker of a beloved civic treasure, the Winnipeg Jets.

And the proud helicopter moms and dads are figuratively peering over his shoulder on the eve of the city's first playoff series in 19 years. The franchise relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta for the 2011-12 season.

Winnipeg, the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference, plays No. 1 Anaheim on Thursday night in the opening round of the playoffs at Honda Center.

"They lost their team," Maurice said, referring to a previous Jets franchise that left for Arizona in 1996, "and it came back to them. It's a little bit like, for me, being the teacher in school and you've got their kids. …

"But never lose sight of the fact that it's their team. So there's an ownership beyond that. There's a parental caring about this team in Winnipeg that's really special."

Game 2 is on Saturday in Anaheim and the series moves to Winnipeg for Game 3 on Monday and Game 4 on Wednesday. Individual tickets to those games at MTS Centre sold out in less than five minutes.

Firetrucks are driving around the city with Jets flags, and enthusiastic parents just named their newborn boy Jett after the team, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. report.

"The city's been excited all four years we've been in Winnipeg, but it was something different," said Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who had four shutouts, a .949 save percentage and a 1.46 goals-against average over the last 13 games.

"When you went to the grocery store or to Starbucks, everywhere you went, I think even people who didn't follow the team, they know we've made the playoffs and they cheer for you. A little bit more excitement for those people."

If Pavelec, whose stellar play sparked the Jets down the stretch, wins the first round, he may never have to buy another Starbucks drink in Winnipeg again.

Maurice noticed the heightened anticipation around Winnipeg even before the Jets qualified for the playoffs.

"You know they appreciate it just as you drive to the rink," he said. "And there's just Winnipeg Jet hoodie after hoodie after sweater. They've fallen in love with it.

"I've coached in U.S. cities and when we've gotten into the playoffs they are as passionate and rabid about their team, but it wouldn't necessarily be the entire city. … But the focus on that [here] is very special."

The Jets got into the playoffs after their second-last game of the season. They lost to the Colorado Avalanche in a shootout on April 9 and were in their dressing room in Denver when word arrived that the Kings had lost to the Calgary Flames, meaning the Jets were in.

It was an instant mood changer that night in Winnipeg. A few hundred fans celebrated the moment at the famous intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street.

Hours later, around 2:30 in the morning, a smaller gathering was on hand when the Jets returned to Winnipeg at the private airport terminal.

"We had a bunch of fans waiting outside, as we drove out," said defenseman Tyler Myers. "That was pretty special to see. We saw the pictures of the all fans downtown, celebrating. You can feel all the excitement."

Winnipeg is one of five Canadian teams that qualified for the NHL playoffs. Last season, Montreal was the lone representative for Canada.

"It's what we want for our sport and the game of hockey, and I think you see it in all of the Canadian cities," Maurice said of the excitement. "It's March Madness and then some across Canada."

This is no ordinary No. 8 versus No. 1. Anaheim is not a universal pick across the board, and the teams have not played each other since Jan. 11.

"The first 10 minutes are going to be very interesting," Maurice said. "It'll be exciting. You don't want to show up late."

Twitter: @reallisa

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