Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 04/20/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
It would be corny and melodramatic to say the chemistry was instant or magical, or that Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler were somehow destined to be united by the mystical gods of hockey.
But the first time the three stepped onto the ice together as linemates -- Feb. 19, 2011 in a 5-3 Atlanta Thrashers loss to the Oilers in Edmonton -- there was definitely something that began percolating between the three.
Wheeler had been traded from Boston to Atlanta in a trade-deadline deal two days previous -- a swap that also brought Mark Stuart aboard -- and was immediately put on the right flank of Ladd and Little.
"You know, it's funny," said Ladd this week, "we had be playing with Peverley before and after the trade they kind of threw us together. And right away we clicked pretty good."
Still, the new combination essentially thrust three men into roles and responsibilities they were not really accustomed to at the NHL level. Ladd had carved out a place -- and won two Stanley Cups -- in the league as a responsible two-way winger with both Carolina and Chicago. Little had first broken into the NHL on a Thrashers squad that featured the likes Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Vyacheslav Kozlov.
And Wheeler arrived after battling for ice time on a stacked Bruins' squad that just a few months later would capture a Stanley Cup.
There were many nights, last season in particular, when the weight of those duties -- and being matched up against top checking lines or defensive pairings -- on a Jets team desperate for goals seemed daunting and overwhelming.
And as Jets coach Claude Noel attempted to find more scoring from more lines there were games, as recently as earlier this season, when the trio was busted up -- seemingly for good.
But let's toss this out right now for debate: For all the discussion last year about whether Ladd-Little-Wheeler was a legit No. 1 line, there is a growing consensus now about what they are morphing into -- a deadly and dominant trio.
Consider that in the six games since the NHL treadline, five of them Jet wins as Winnipeg continues a push for a playoff spot, Ladd (four goals, eight assists), Little (1G, 8A) and Wheeler (3G, 7A) have combined for more points than any other line in the NHL.
And one more nugget: In a scan of the NHL's top trios -- as provided by the website dailyfaceoff.com -- the Ladd-Little-Wheeler line has combined for the fifth-most points in the league this season with 41 goals and 71 assists for 112 points.
"There's that thing that you really can't put your finger on," said Wheeler when asked to explain their chemistry. "It just kinda works when you play well with certain guys and things go well.
"It takes all of the thinking out of the game and it makes it a lot easier to be out there with each other. You don't have to think where somebody's going to be, you just know where they're going to be and that confidence just helps you play at a different level sometimes."
What the line offers the Jets -- and, in turn, gives opponents fits -- is a tasty combination of skills. Ladd has an underrated shot and hands and is willing to do a lot of the grunt work; Little is a crafty setup man who sees the ice like a point guard in basketball and Wheeler is a 6-5 winger with world-class speed and finish.
"We've got a great mix, I think, a little bit of everything," said Ladd. "But at the end of the day I really think the key is how we use each other out there.
"We're three guys that like to use other players on the ice and we understand that it makes it easier on each other when you are moving the puck. When you have that understanding, it makes it that much easier to play hockey."
That's about as in-depth explanation as any of the three men will provide as to what makes their chemistry suffice. And, truth be known, they don't waste a whole lot of grey matter analyzing it all.
It's working. Enough said.
"We just have a natural chemistry," said Little with a shrug. "There's not a whole lot to say other than that. Sometimes when you're put with guys, there's a feeling-out process where you have to get used to playing with each other and it takes awhile for that chemistry to come. But for us, it seems like ever since we were put together we've had that natural chemistry where things have been going pretty well.
"All I know is right now when those two guys are both shooting the puck so well, when they're going this good, I just want to get the puck on their tape."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WFPEdTait
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 C2
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