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Little returns tonight as Jets host Rangers

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets


WINNIPEGBryan Little isn’t overly concerned about the rust of a long and unplanned layoff.

He’s just happy to be back.

“I feel great,” Little said, confirming his status for tonight’s game against the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers.

Little, who has 51 points (24G, 27A) in 64 games this season, has been out of the lineup since suffering an upper-body injury on Mar. 4 vs. Ottawa. Little has missed 11 games and the Jets have strung together a 7-4 record without him.

Little will be re-inserted on the top line alongside Andrew Ladd and Michael Frolik.

“I felt really good this morning. The good thing is I’m going to have lots of energy tonight,” he laughed. “I might be a little rusty with the puck, but I’m going to go out there, play hard and keep it as simple as I can. … I imagine I’ll be a bit nervous and a bit excited, so you don’t want to get out there and do something that you’re not used to doing. I’m going to get out, stay calm and try to pick up where I left off.”

With Little back in the picture, the full forward line combinations are as follows:

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Michael Frolik
Drew Stafford - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault - Adam Lowry - Lee Stempniak
Jiri Tlusty - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn

For the first time since General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff added a number of key pieces prior to the trade deadline, Head Coach Paul Maurice and the Jets will have their full complement of forwards available to them.

“There’s an excitement there. You could feel it in the morning skate,” Maurice said. “This adds quite a bit more depth (to our lineup). We’re certainly stronger down the middle. I’m excited about Bryan coming back, but I don’t want to diminish what Scheifele and Lowry did [in Little’s absence].”

Both were exemplary, and all at the age of 22.

“We’re really excited to have Bryan back. He brings a tremendous amount of skill and to have him back in the lineup, that’s a huge boost for us,” Lowry, who averaged more than 15 minutes per game in ice time throughout that 11-game stint on the top line, said following the morning skate.

“The experience up there was great. Going out and getting the job done against some of the bigger-name guys, it’s good for my confidence. Now, going down and playing with Matty and Lee, it’s a good opportunity. It shows the depth of our team.”

Stempniak, who was acquired from the Rangers back on the first of this month, agrees.

“It’s crunch time now, so getting those guys back now will be a boost,” he said.

Stempniak had nine goals and 18 points in 53 games with the Rangers after signing a one-year deal with them, three weeks into unrestricted free agency. He has two goals and three assists in 12 games to this point with the Jets.

“They’re a very good team and they’re playing well,” Stempniak said. “They’re a fast team, too, so for us, it’s about taking care of the puck and not feeding into their transition with turnovers. … I have some friends over there, so it will be fun to compete against them. It’s a huge game for our team.”

Stempniak says that while he enjoyed his time in New York, he couldn’t be happier with how things are going with his new team.

“It’s a great organization, but things like that happen,” Stempniak said of the trade. “Winnipeg is a great team and a great organization, so for me, personally, it’s been a great move. I really enjoy it here.”

There will be no changes on defence or in goal, where Ondrej Pavelec will look to get back in the win column after having a personal six-game winning streak snapped the other night vs. Chicago. Pavelec has a 19-15-7 record, along with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.

Henrik Lundqvist will get the nod between the pipes for the Rangers after allowing four goals in his first game back from a neck injury that sidelined him for eight weeks. In 40 games this season, Lundqvist has a 25-12-3 record, a 2.29 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.

“They move the puck well,” Maurice said of the Rangers. “Lots of teams skate fast, but they’ll get that puck up the ice and play a little more of a straight-line game than you saw with Chicago. They use it to strong effect. Any team with exceptional speed, your plan has to be that you can’t give them the ice to play on.”

— Ryan Dittrick,

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