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Little coming up big for Jets

by Patrick Williams
WINNIPEG -- A month ago, Bryan Little of the Winnipeg Jets admits that he may have flubbed the type of setup that led to his game-winning goal in Tuesday night's 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Dustin Byfuglien lasered a pass across the slot from the right side to Little at the left post that landed in the center's skates. With Minnesota goaltender Nicklas Backstrom scrambling to push across his crease to the right, Little calmly kicked the puck to his stick and tapped the puck past Backstrom.

"It's amazing," Little said of what an upgrade in confidence can do. "[A month ago] maybe I kick [the puck] too hard out of my skates or something. I handled it more calmly than maybe I would have earlier in the season. When you have that confidence to shoot the puck without even thinking, it's amazing how much it can do for you."

After a misreable first six weeks of the season, Winnipeg's Bryan Little has busted out in a big way. (Photo: Travis Golby/NHLI)
The first six weeks of the season were miserable for Little. The speedy center, who had scored 31 goals in the 2008-09 season, did not record his first goal until Nov. 8 in Buffalo, the Jets' 15th game of the season.

Badly in need of offense for his club, Jets coach Claude Noel swapped leading scorer Evander Kane for captain Andrew Ladd on Little's left flank last month -- and since then, the Jets' top line has powered one of the hottest clubs in the NHL. Kane's straight-ahead speed and strength, along with Little's play-making ability and hands, have meshed with right wing Blake Wheeler's ability to distribute and protect the puck. Little has points in seven consecutive games, and has generated nine goals and 15 points in 15 games dating to Nov. 14. Wheeler, who also struggled to start the season, now leads the Jets with 18 assists, and Kane has crept to within four goals of Ottawa sniper Milan Michalek's League-leading 19 tallies.

The 24-year-old Little now has nine goals in his last 11 games in a stretch that began with a 5-4 win against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 19 -- including goals in his last four games. The Jets have won eight of their last nine games at the raucous MTS Centre, including decisions this month over the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins and the Wild, who hold the top spot in the overall standings this season.

"I think we're beginning to realize that we can play with these better teams," Little said.

Little's surge comes after a pair of frustrating seasons that spilled over into his new home in Winnipeg. After scoring 31 times in '08-09, Little managed just 13 and 18 goals in the past two seasons. Confidence and managing frustration have improved Little mentally, and a transition to a shoot-first mentality has carried Little on the ice.

"It can carry on longer than it needs to," Little said of the effect that frustration can have in prolonging a slump. "You can't take it home with you. You can't be in a bad mood all the time because things aren't going well with hockey. I learned that you have to leave it at the rink."

Noel can use Little in all situations, and Little logged a season-high 29 shifts against Minnesota on Tuesday. Noel also relies heavily on Little's work in the faceoff circle -- Little's 590 draws taken this season are sixth in the League.

The Jets continue their home-heavy schedule on Thursday when the Washington Capitals visit. With 12 of 14 games at home this month, the Jets need to continue to accumulate points. The Capitals lost 5-1 at home to the Flyers on Tuesday, and the Jets expect another tough test. Winnipeg sits 10th in the Eastern Conference with 32 points, one point behind the eighth-place New Jersey Devils.

"We don't want to get too proud of ourselves," Little said of taking out the likes of Boston and Minnesota recently. "We enjoyed it for a few minutes last night, but it's we know it's only one game. In the standings, we have work to do to catch up with other teams."
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