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Hoping for even a Little

Pressure continues to mount on unproductive centre

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BUFFALO, NY -- These are not the type of media scrums Bryan Little is particularly fond of facing. Fact is, it must be killing the Winnipeg Jet centre to have to -- repeatedly, it seems, lately -- own up to the struggles of his offensive game.

But those scoring woes are pretty significant: A man pegged as the team's No. 1 centre at the start of the season has just three points, and no goals, through 14 games.

"It's been tough," said Little after participating in an optional skate at the First Niagara Center on Monday. "I feel like I've been playing better the last five or six games. I've been getting more chances lately. I'm trying to shoot the puck and do other things well: play good in my own end, bear down on face-offs... but it's definitely frustrating to start the season out like this. All I can do is keep shooting and try to shoot as much as I can."

Little is not alone in this regard. Blake Wheeler -- who along with Little and Andrew Ladd formed the team's top line at the end of last season -- is also searching for his first goal. And as the Jets continue to struggle to find offence, the more these two have their games magnified.

"There's some things that have to happen there. They're getting power-play time. They're getting some time where you have to start producing, that's just the bottom line," said head coach Claude Noel. "There's some things you have to recognize there. They've had some chemistry in the past and likely we're going to have to look for it again. Those guys have got to get going, there's no question about that, because our team can't keep competing off one goal."

Little had 31 goals in his first full NHL season, back in 2008-09, but has seen his totals drop to 13 and then 18 in the last two years. What's happened to open this year is a visible drop in confidence that has resulted in a tendency not to shoot while attempting to make the perfect play.

"I had a stretch last year where I went 14 or 15 games without scoring and then it happens and you get like six or seven in five or six games," said Little. "It's funny how that happens, where one can build your confidence. When you're struggling to score, you try and do too much or hang onto the puck too long. It's strange... for me, when I'm struggling to score I'm looking to pass more rather than shoot. You want to score but your first thought is not to shoot. I've just got to put it in my brain more to shoot the puck more when I get the chances."

Noel said Monday he has not thought about sitting Little or Wheeler to make a point. His thinking here is simple: A benching doesn't ease the frustration. Besides, who would jump in to replace them?

"The effort is good, so that's not one of the problems," Noel explained. "The other thing is that, is there a motive to the sitting? Is it motivation? Are you helping your team and are those two guys replaceable players? At the end of the day you're trying to win games so you have to manage it intelligently.

"We've got a couple of guys struggling and when they're struggling together it's tough. Confidence is a delicate thing. If one gets going then sometimes it just starts to go and then all of a sudden it's like, 'Whoa!' And when one guy goes then three guys can get going."

Some day, one day, the goals will come. In the meantime, for Little and Wheeler, misery loves company.

"When you're playing on the same line and you're in something like this you try and help each other," said Little. "We talk to each other, we try to get each other going before the game. We tell each other to shoot the puck and keep it simple. It makes you feel better that the other guy is going through it, but you want him to get out of it just as much as you do."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2011 D3

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