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NHL makes its official-unofficial return to Winnipeg tonight

Sep 20, 2011, 12:37 PM EDT

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Winnipeg Jets Training Camp Getty Images

The last time a NHL game was played in Winnipeg that featured the hometown team standing front and center was April 28, 1996 when the Detroit Red Wings eliminated the Winnipeg Jets from the playoffs in six games. While there have been preseason games that have come back to Winnipeg over the last few seasons, tonight’s preseason match-up at the MTS Centre will be something special as there’s a home team to root for once again.

The Winnipeg Jets host the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight and while it’s a split-squad affair between the teams (the other half of their rosters are in Columbus to face each other) it makes the return of the NHL a real and tangible thing for fans in Manitoba. If you think they’re not excited about that, you’d be completely wrong.

Patrick Williams of NHL.com gets the word from Jets coach Claude Noel heading into tonight’s coming out party.

Noel admitted his team is in uncharted waters, to some extent, given the city’s NHL history and the significance of the game.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Noel said. “I have a pretty good idea of what to expect for the Montreal game. I think it will be good. I think it will be enthusiastic. If it’s anything like our first practice, goodness, I thought our first practice was fabulous.”

A potential pitfall for the home team would be trying to impress the crowd or over-complicate the game. Noel, however, sees the possible distractions as positive challenges to his club.

“I think it’s all good,” Noel said when asked about the game’s significance possibly affecting his club. “I don’t think it will be a distraction. I think, if anything, it will be a big help for us. I think you’ll be able to see who is nervous, who has trouble in front of this excitable crowd. Those are the things that you want to look at and see how the response is.”

The Jets (and Blue Jackets) roster for tonight’s game is available from the guys at Illegal Curve (PDF) and the hometown fans will get a look at their starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec as well as likely starters in Zach Bogosian, Mark Stuart, Alexander Burmistrov, captain Andrew Ladd, and Dustin Byfuglien as well. 2011 first round pick Mark Scheifele will also get a chance to show the home fans what he’s about as well while hometown guys Troy Bodie and Jason Gregoire look to impress and win jobs.

It’s just a preseason game, but to see the buzz and excitement that’s coming out of Winnipeg for it is outstanding to see. Given that it’ll likely be a packed house for the game tonight, it’s doubtful you’ll see another preseason game played this year with this much excitement surrounding it.

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