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With things getting hairy, Little comes up big

by Lindsay Kramer

Chicago Wolves rookie center Bryan Little, the Atlanta Thrashers' top pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, had 25 points in 34 games this season.
Maybe it was a little chalk talk from coach John Anderson that got Chicago Wolves rookie center Bryan Little going before Game 7 of the West Division finals against Rockford.

Little sure hopes so. He'd hate to think the magic was in his moustache.

That was part of the plan hatched by the Wolves after Game 5, when the IceHogs led the series 3-2. Everyone shaved down their playoff beards to a moustache to change the team's luck. Little, of course, went along, although he winced at the man in the mirror.

"It didn't look too bad with beards," Little noted. "Moustaches on us, maybe because we're younger, look funny. Mine's not too bad, but it still doesn't look good. We get weird looks from people."

Little proceeded to score a crucial goal in Chicago's decisive win May 13. The victory moved the Wolves into the Western Conference final vs. Toronto.

"I was telling myself before Game 7 that I had to play better," Little said. "It seemed like nothing was going right for us. We were getting outworked, and got away from our game."

That was precisely the point that Anderson tried to get across at the morning skate. Whether capped off by that plea or by his charmed new look, Little's clutch effort has been a season-long project.

Little, taken by Atlanta in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, made the Thrashers out of camp. He notched his first career pro goal in his NHL debut Oct. 5 against the Washington Capitals, becoming the first Thrashers player to accomplish that feat. It was all the sweeter because his father, John, was at the game.

"I was nervous, but I had a lot of energy," Bryan recalled. "It worked out perfect. I think he was pretty excited to be there."

But Little was on borrowed time with the Thrashers, even in his own mind. He said he never expected to begin with Atlanta, and his tentative play showed that. On Dec. 11, Atlanta farmed him out to the Wolves.

"I started off good, when I first made the team," Little said. "After 10 games, I started to fight the puck a bit, lose my confidence. I found in the NHL, there's not many mistakes (made). When there are mistakes, that's usually when guys score."

Slipping into Anderson's racehorse offense was a shot of adrenaline. Little already had the speed and wrist shot to give any defense the shivers. He clearly knows his way around the offensive zone, tallying 342 points in 247 career games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL.

Getting a little whiff of AHL success – nine goals and 16 assists in 34 games with Chicago – nurtured his blossoming aggressiveness.

"That's what makes him an elite player at this level. Down low, he's a battler," Anderson said. "If he's checking, he's checking. It's not just token checking. He has a ton of offensive ability. He knew he was going to be in an offensive role for us."

Anderson wouldn't have it any other way. It might have been easy to hide his budding star well behind the team's otherworldly top line of Darren Hayder, Brett Sterling and league MVP Jason Krog.
Nope. Anderson put Little between Joe Motzko and Jesse Shultz to create a No. 2 line that was better than just about every other team's top trio.

"I want pressure to be on him," Anderson said. "That's the thought process of him being down here. If you're not an impact player in the American Hockey League, how are you going to make it in the NHL?"

"I think any first-rounder would be lying if they said they didn't feel pressure." -- Bryan Little
Little, 20, bought into the challenge.

"I think any first-rounder would be lying if they said they didn't feel pressure," Little said. "They expect so much of you. I don't go into the games and say, 'I have to score.' I just say, 'Work hard, and you'll get chances from there."'

Even second chances. Little was recalled to Atlanta on Feb. 26 and spent the rest of the regular season there. All told, he chipped in with three goals and six assists in 29 games for the Thrashers before skating back into the playoff cauldron with Chicago. Through the Wolves' first 14 playoff games, he contributed four goals and three assists.

"It's not a huge difference, but it took me a bit to get adjusted to the AHL," he said. "It's good for me to be here right now. There is a lot of pressure on this team. There is pressure each game to win. It's kind of rare to get the chance I've gotten this year. I want to play in big situations. I'm getting a chance to prove I can be a factor."

Still, playoffs can drain even the youngest and most energetic legs. Relaxing after a practice in his apartment last week, Little sounded ready for some hockey hibernation.

"I probably could use a nap. It seems a lot longer than the junior season does," he said. "Knowing that we're only halfway there, we have a lot of work ahead of us. That's what makes it better. You get to play and be part of something special."

The Calder Cup is a strong motivation. So, too, is the razor that Little will reach for a minute after he embraces it, or whenever the Wolves' playoffs end.

"I plan on shaving it off as soon as it's over. It kind of tickles your lip a little bit," Little said of his moustache. "It's coming off right away. If I do (keep it), it will be for a joke."

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