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Little gives Atlanta a big offensive boost

by Mike G. Morreale
More shots have generated plenty more goals for Atlanta Thrashers forward Bryan Little.

The 5-foot-11, 185 pound Edmonton native had 7 goals and 8 points in a five-game stretch for Atlanta, which was 13th in the Eastern Conference with 13 wins and 31 points after Friday's 4-3 shootout win over Vancouver. On top of that, he has already established career bests with 19 goals, 13 assists, 32 points, 7 power-play goals and 3 game-winners.

The most telling statistic, however, might just be that shooting percentage. Little entered the weekend hitting at a 22.1 percent clip on a career-high 86 shots in 38 games while working alongside center Todd White and left wing Slava Kozlov. He's far surpassed last year's percentage of 7.9 on 76 attempts in 48 games.

"I'm shooting the puck more this year and, as a result, am able to generate more chances," Little said. "I'm getting more goals on more rebounds and being able to bang away at the net much more than in the past. I know that, when given the chance, I'd have a better season than last, so it's nice to contribute this way."

Little is playing loose and determined.

"It's my responsibility to be in front of the net and in the slot," Little said. "I just had to get more comfortable and, for me, I was able to find the open areas on the ice because of that. My linemates (Kozlov and White) have also helped me out a lot. They're the older veteran guys who have made it really easy for me. We read each other very well and can each shoot the puck really well. I feel very confident playing alongside those guys."

He also considers the fact that because Kozlov and White are both left-handed shots, he has become a lot more cognizant of his positioning in front of the opposing goalie. It certainly doesn't hurt to have team scoring leader Ilya Kovalchuk winding up from the point as well.

"Playing with two lefties on the power-play has made me even more responsible to be in good position in front of the net," Little said. "It's all about feeling comfortable in the slot and finding the areas that create better scoring chances."

The line of Little-Kozlov-White is the top-scoring trio for the Thrashers with 55 goals and 101 points through 38 games.

"He finds the spot in front of the net where there's all the loose pucks," Kozlov said.
"He gets his nose dirty and battles for the pucks in front of the net. He's strong on his skates, and he wins some battles. He's very solid."

Against the ropes -- After winning seven of its first 10 games of December, the Florida Panthers fell on some hard times just before the New Year as the loser of four straight before Saturday's 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If one thing is certain for coach Peter DeBoer, however, team scoring is certainly spread out. There are currently 10 players, including three defensemen, with at least 14 points.

On top of that, DeBoer has been adamant about rotating his goalies and sticking with that keeper with the hot glove, so to speak. Those goalies — Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson — have been challenged more than any other tandem in the NHL so far this season as the Panthers have allowed a League-leading 1,312 shots. Atlanta owns the second-highest total at 1,281. Of course, this is nothing new in Florida as the club has been among the worst in shots against in each of the past three seasons. That's precisely the reason Panthers GM Jacques Martin traded for puck-moving defenseman Keith Ballard in the off-season.

Ballard, who has 4 goals and 14 points in 37 games, realizes the team must make a concerted effort to limit quality scoring opportunities.

"We have two very good goalies that have played well for us," Ballard said. "No matter what, we know we'll get a good performance from either one. But we can't continue to rely on skill. We need to be the same hard-working team we've been recently."

Reminiscing -- Prior to facing the Washington Capitals on Thursday evening, there's a good chance Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Ryan Malone and Adam Hall found a way to watch a bit of the Bridgestone Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field.

Of course, both players participated in last year's New Year's Day contest as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Buffalo Sabres before a record hockey crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

"It was awesome," Malone told The Tampa Tribune. "To be outside and with it snowing last year, it was pretty cool. As we were coming out, you can understand why football players get all jacked up having that many people screaming. You definitely get goose bumps.''

Not only did Hall have the opportunity to play outdoors with Pittsburgh on an NHL level, he also skated in the elements as a member of the Michigan State Spartans against rival Michigan during his college days.

"The atmosphere is just phenomenal," Hall said. "I mean, it's not very often you get the chance to play in front of such huge crowds where there is so much buildup and so much excitement around the game, so it's definitely a lot of fun to be a part of."

Surging Samsonov -- After scoring just two goals over his previous 10 games, Hurricanes wing Sergei Samsonov equaled that total and then some on New Year's Eve.

The 11th-season veteran posted his first three-point game of the season, including a pair of goals, as the Canes defeated the Atlanta Thrashers, 3-1, for the second time in five days on Wednesday. The two-goal outburst moves Samsonov within one of 200 for his career. He added two assists on Friday in a 2-1 win over St. Louis.

Samsonov had 32 points (14 goals) in 36 games last season after joining the Hurricanes on Jan. 8, 2008. After earning just three assists in Carolina's first 18 games this season, he now has posted 18 points (7 goals) in Carolina's last 22 games. The Hurricanes are 10-3-2 this season when Samsonov registers at least one point and 4-0-2 in games when he scores a goal.

Carolina finished December with a 6-4-3 record for 15 points, marking its best month, point-wise, this season. The team still trailed Southeast Division leader Washington by 12 points heading into Friday's game against the St. Louis Blues.

Carolina coach Paul Maurice is optimistic about his club moving forward.

"More than anything I like the personalities," Maurice said. "They are a good bunch of guys and they like coming to the rink and like being around each other — so that gives us a chance. But we still have to define what is Carolina Hurricanes' hockey. That's the biggest task we have because we know January is a huge month for us. I still think we can be more physical and a little more pedal to the floor mentality, but it's hard to go when you're going D-zone coverage every day in practice."

Collins contributes -- Washington Capitals rookie defenseman Sean Collins scored his first NHL goal Thursday night in a 7-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I'm shooting the puck more this year and, as a result, am able to generate more chances. I'm getting more goals on more rebounds and being able to bang away at the net much more than in the past. I know that, when given the chance, I'd have a better season than last, so it's nice to contribute this way." -- Atlanta forward Bryan Little
Collins, who was playing in his 11th game, now has two points and 10 penalty minutes for the season. The 25-year-old native of Troy, Mich., joins Karl Alzner (Dec. 6 at Buffalo), Chris Bourque (Dec. 30 at Buffalo) and Tyler Sloan (Oct. 25 at Dallas) on the list of first-year Capital players to score their first NHL career goal this season.

"It was unbelievable to score and it didn't quite hit me until later in the game," Collins said. "It's pretty exciting."

Collins actually scored the game's first goal at 3:58 of the opening period on assists from Alex Ovechkin and Shaone Morrisonn. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team is now 4-0-0 when a player scores his first career goal, would no doubt like to see the trend continue.

"With experience comes comfort — and the more I've been playing, the more comfortable I'm getting," Collins said. "I'm getting good practices in with the guys every day and getting used to the speed at this level. That's helped me out a ton and the coaches are doing a great job communicating to me how they want me to play so I'm confident each time I'm out there.

"It also doesn't hurt to be practicing with guys like Ovechkin and Backstrom. That's as good as it gets right there."

Contact Mike Morreale at

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