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Little's hat trick leads Jets past Avalanche

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets had to adjust to their new-look blue line against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.

As it turns out, the blue line was fine for the Jets, and forward Bryan Little had a hat trick to lead Winnipeg to a 6-2 win at MTS Centre on Friday. Little had an assist for a career-high four points, and linemate Blake Wheeler had three assists.

Jets captain Andrew Ladd had a goal and two assists. The line of Ladd, Little and Wheeler combined for 10 points (four goals, six assists) for the Jets (14-9-4), who have won the first two games of their three-game homestand.

The six goals tied a season high for the Jets, who began the game averaging two per game. Coach Paul Maurice’s emphasis on defensive structure has limited some of the offensive opportunities.

"With the way that we’re starting to play now, it’s kind of defense-first, and we kind of understand that some of the guys might not be scoring as much or might not be getting as many points," Little said. "That’s going to happen with the way we’re playing now. Nights like tonight are good for the confidence and good for the team. It feels good to score six goals."

Leading 3-1 after two periods against a Colorado team playing back-to-back games, Little scored two goals 32 seconds apart early in the third period for the franchise’s first hat trick since the Jets relocated to Winnipeg in 2011. It was Little’s first hat trick since Dec. 26, 2008.

Eric Boulton had the franchise’s most recent hat trick on Dec. 18, 2010, the longest span between them for any NHL team.

"It will be fun for some of the guys that are good friends with [Boulton] to let him know that it’s over," Wheeler said.

Maurice said he was happy with the Jets' effort.

"We were really good in just about every aspect of our game," Maurice said. "Our energy level was good. We played a solid game. They had some fatigue. It’s tough to play back-to-back nights in [the NHL]. But we were good."

Jarome Iginla, who scored the goals for the Avalanche (9-12-6), passed Mats Sundin and Joe Nieuwendyk for 21st place with 566 NHL goals. Iginla tied Rod Brind'Amour for 47th place with 1,184 points.

After missing six consecutive games with a groin injury, Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov started each game of the back-to-back set, including a 4-3 overtime loss at the Calgary Flames on Thursday, and made 25 saves on 30 shots before Avalanche coach Patrick Roy pulled him. Reto Berra replaced Varlamov after Winnipeg’s fifth goal and made six saves.

Winnipeg goalie Michael Hutchinson made 20 saves.

Fourth-line forward Chris Thorburn scored for the Jets 4:31 into the first period. Winnipeg scored first for the eighth consecutive game and has scored the first goal in I8 of its 27 games this season, tying them with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the League lead. The Jets are 11-4-3 this season when scoring first.

"I always think that the start of the game is the key when you’re playing a team playing back-to-back [games], and they exactly what they had to do," Roy said.

"Saying this, they deserved to win this game. I think one of the reasons why we struggle a bit is the fact that we’re struggling to score goals. And obviously we’re taking chances at the wrong time."

After Iginla tied the game 1-1 at 9:19, Little reclaimed the lead for the Jets. He took a pass from Wheeler and put a shot on net that Varlamov could not grab until it had completely crossed the goal line at 12:29. The play was not initially ruled a goal, but the call changed after video review and gave Little his ninth goal.

"When [Little] is feeling good with the puck and he gets hot, he is about as dangerous as anyone I’ve ever played with," Wheeler said. "His stick always seems to be open. Whenever I have the puck, I always see his stick open. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun to play with a guy like that who is always in the right spots and seems to get open."

Ladd put the Jets ahead by two goals at 19:15 of the second period when he tipped Dustin Byfuglien’s shot past Varlamov for his ninth.

"They deserved to beat us 6-2," Colorado forward Matt Duchene said. "The score reflected exactly how the game went."

"We’re behind them in the [standings]. We should be more desperate than they are, but they came out and dominated us from start to finish. It was a disappointing effort. I think all of us are disappointed in ourselves and each other."

With defensemen Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome and Toby Enstrom out with long-term injuries, the Jets added Byfuglien to their defense and shut down the Avalanche. Byfuglien played a team-high 26:24.

Winnipeg outshot Colorado 16-4 in the first period and had a 23-6 advantage by the midpoint of the game. By the end of the second period, the Jets led 26-9.

Little pushed the Winnipeg lead to 5-1 with goals 45 seconds and 1:17 into the third period for his 10th and 11th.

Iginla scored his second of the game on the power play with 9:36 left.

Byfuglien finished the scoring off a long shot for his sixth goal at 13:20.

Ladd admitted the scoring outburst will ease some of the pressure his line has felt.

"It helps the confidence, especially our line," Ladd said. "I think we had a tough game last game. To be able to bounce back and be able to contribute offensively tonight was nice."

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