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Little goes a long way to help Thrashers offense

by John Kreiser
Bryan Little is proving that Ilya Kovalchuk isn't the only Atlanta Thrasher who knows how to find the back of the net.

The Thrashers' top pick in the 2006 Entry Draft has 18 goals in Atlanta's first 36 games. Little entered this season with 6 NHL goals -- a total he matched last week by connecting six times in three games. That included his first three-goal game Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes. He also scored twice against the New York Islanders Tuesday and had Atlanta's lone goal in Sunday's 2-1 loss to Boston.

The Edmonton native is on pace for a 41-goal season. With opposing checkers paying ever-increasing attention to Kovalchuk, the Thrashers will continue to need Little's hot stick to have any hope of getting back into the playoff race.

Five up -- Five players who've been hot:

Jonathan Quick -- Quick got a chance to play when Los Angeles goaltender Erik Ersberg got hurt and Jason LaBarbera struggled, and he's making the most of his opportunity. The rookie netminder posted his first two NHL shutouts last week and allowed just two goals in three games.

Ryan Smyth -- Last week might have been Smyth's best since signing with Colorado in the summer of 2007, totaling 2 goals and 3 assists in wins against the Coyotes and Red Wings. With Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny out with injuries, Smyth will have to continue the strong play to keep the Avs in the playoff race.

Alex Ovechkin -- It seems like Ovechkin is on this list every week, doesn't it? That's because he's been on a hot streak that began after his return from Russia in early November and hasn't stopped. Ovechkin had 5 goals and an assist in Washington's 3-0 week, and was at his best in rallying the Caps from a 4-0 deficit to a 5-4 win at the Rangers.

James Neal -- Dallas had high expectations for Neal, and he delivered on them last week. He had his first NHL three-goal game in front of numerous friends and family at the Air Canada Centre, then added a goal and an assist in Saturday's win against Anaheim.

Pavel Datsyuk -- Datsyuk continues to put up terrific offensive numbers. He has 6 goals and 14 points in Detroit's last seven games, including 3-2-5 in the Wings' three games last week.

Five down -- Five players who are struggling:

Vaclav Prospal -- Among the many disappointments for Tampa Bay this season has been the lack of production from Prospal, who is just 6-11-17 in 35 games after returning to the Bolts during the summer. He's struggled even more recently, going pointless with a minus-4 rating in his last nine games.

Christian Ehrhoff -- Ehrhoff had 16 points in San Jose's first 20 games, but the veteran defenseman has been ice-cold since then. He has gone 15 games without a point despite averaging more than 20 minutes per game. He's also minus-5 in his last four games.

Fredrik Modin -- Modin never has been as good for Columbus as he was with Tampa Bay, where he helped the Lightning win the 2004 Stanley Cup. Modin has gone pointless in five games and is just 7-7-14 in 29 games this season -- a big reason the Jackets are struggling to score.

Trent Hunter -- With 11 goals in his first 25 games, Hunter was one of the few New York Islanders producing any offense. But Hunter's scoring touch has disappeared over the last three weeks: He hasn't scored a goal in his last nine games, going 0-3-3 and minus-3 in that span.

Alex Auld -- Auld isn't getting a lot of help from his teammates in Ottawa, but he's not helping the Senators as much as he was earlier in the season. Auld has lost his last four starts and allowed five goals in each game, including Saturday's 6-3 loss at Calgary.
Injuries, news and notes:

Out -- All-Star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom injured his ankle blocking a shot in Detroit's 3-2 loss at Nashville on Friday and didn't play the next night at Colorado. ... The Avs played that game without their top scorer, Paul Stastny, who broke his right forearm blocking a shot in Colorado's last game before Christmas. ... Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang sat out games Friday and Saturday with a right leg injury. ... Islanders forward Andy Hilbert sustained a hairline fracture of his left foot Friday night while blocking a shot. ... Philadelphia lost defenseman Kimmo Timonen for at least a week when he chipped a bone in his right ankle Friday. The Flyers also will be without forward Scottie Upshall for another week or so due to a sprained knee. ... Toronto forward Matt Stajan likely will miss a week or so with an eye injury sustained in a pre-game soccer game Saturday. ... Washington forward Tomas Fleischmann will miss some time due to pneumonia. ... Vancouver forward Taylor Pyatt is out indefinitely after sustaining a broken foot in Friday's game against Edmonton. ... Dallas forward Joel Lundqvist still is having shoulder problems; he's missed the Stars' last three games. ... Ottawa defenseman Filip Kuba hasn't played since going down with a groin injury Dec. 20.

Returning -- The Islanders got their best injury news in weeks when starting goaltender Rick DiPietro returned Friday after missing 27 games due to a knee injury that required surgery. He led the Isles to a 4-1 win against Toronto, but didn't make the trip to Buffalo on Saturday. Also, Isles forward Trent Hunter returned Tuesday after missing two games with a groin injury. ... Montreal forward Andrei Kostitsyn returned from a two-game absence due to a leg injury to score all three of his team's goals in a 3-2 win at Pittsburgh on Saturday. ... Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood may be ready to play Tuesday; he's missed five games while coping with a groin injury. ... Colorado forward Marek Svatos returned Saturday after missing six games with a back injury. ... Toronto's Jamal Mayers was back in the lineup Sunday for the first time since going down with a broken hand Dec. 1. ... Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill, who's missed 10 games with a shoulder problem, has been cleared for light contact and hopes to be back within the week. Another defenseman, Ryan Whitney, made his season debut Dec. 23 after being idled by offseason foot surgery. ... San Jose forward Milan Michalek returned Saturday after missing three games with an upper-body injury. ... Chicago activated defenseman Aaron Johnson on Friday after he missed a month with an upper-body injury. The Blackhawks also got forward Adam Burish back after he missed 12 games with a broken toe. ... Washington captain Chris Clark returned Friday after missing 14 games due to a stress fracture in his forearm. ... Anaheim forward Brad May returned Dec. 23 after missing seven games with a knee problem. ... Columbus got defenseman Rostislav Klesla back Dec. 23 after he missed nearly six weeks with a high ankle sprain. But center Derek Brassard, one of the NHL's top rookies, likely will miss the rest of the season due to shoulder surgery.

Still out -- Washington placed center Sergei Fedorov on the long-term injury list due to a nagging ankle injury. He can't return until Jan. 9. ... St. Louis' Paul Kariya, out since early November with a hip injury, will undergo surgery that could sideline him for the rest of the season. ... Toronto says defenseman Mike Van Ryn will miss about another 10 days as he recovers from a concussion suffered earlier this month. ... Nashville hopes forward Steve Sullivan will return to the lineup sometime in January. He hasn't played since Feb. 22, 2007 due to a back injury. ... Calgary forward Curtis Glencross is skating but not ready to return from a knee injury that has sidelined him for more than two weeks. ... Minnesota defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, sidelined Dec. 19 with a lower-body injury, is out indefinitely.

The week ahead -- The NHL takes to the great outdoors for the second-straight Jan. 1 with the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009, as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Detroit Red Wings at historic Wrigley Field. More than 40,000 fans are expected to turn out. It's the highlight of a busy week in which 12 of the 30 teams play four times.

Other games to watch:
New York Islanders at New York Rangers (Dec. 29, 7 p.m. VERSUS, TSN2) -- Much to the consternation of Rangers fans, the Isles have won their last three visits to Madison Square Garden, including a 2-1 win Nov. 4, and are 7-1-1 in their last nine trips to the big city.

Philadelphia Flyers at Vancouver Canucks (Dec. 30) -- Talk about a home way from home: The Flyers are 9-0-4 in their last 13 trips to Vancouver and never have lost at GM Place. The Canucks' last home win against the Flyers came Jan. 17, 1989.

Chicago at Detroit (Dec. 30) -- In a warm-up for the Winter Classic, the Wings and Blackhawks play the first of this home-and-home series at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit has won both previous meetings this season in shootouts.

Edmonton at Calgary (Dec. 31, 10 p.m., TSN) -- This renewal of the Battle of Alberta will be the last NHL game of 2008. The Winter Classic is the first one of 2009.

Ottawa at Toronto (Jan. 3, 7 p.m., CBC) -- At least the Senators can get close to home during their eight-game road trip -- they visit the Air Canada Centre for Game 5 of their eight-game odyssey.

Tough week ahead:
Columbus Blue Jackets --
After an easy Christmas week, the Blue Jackets have it tougher this week, which sees them play the first four games of a six-game trip, beginning Monday night in Los Angeles and including three in four nights at Anaheim, Colorado and St. Louis.

New York Islanders -- It's four games in six nights for the Isles, whose week includes a trip to Madison Square Garden, a home matinee on New Year's Eve and visits to Phoenix and San Jose. They play seven games in the first 11 days after Christmas.

Philadelphia Flyers --
The Flyers began their annual post-holiday road trip in Chicago on Friday and head west this week for games at Vancouver, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Easy week ahead:

Los Angeles Kings --
The Kings are one of only two teams that play just twice this week. They host Columbus on Monday and then get a four-day break to celebrate the new year before Philadelphia comes to the Staples Center on Saturday.

New York Rangers -- For the second straight week, the Rangers play just twice as the rest of the NHL catches up to them in terms of games played. The Rangers are home Monday against the Islanders, then get a four-day break before a visit to Washington on Saturday.   

Toronto Maple Leafs -- The Leafs play at home New Year's Day, one of three home games for them in a week that sees no back-to-back games and visits from Atlanta, Buffalo and Ottawa.
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