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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Noel puts top trio among NHL elite

Little, Ladd, Wheeler 'just more mature'

Posted: 04/18/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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HE tried something else for a good while to start the season but when Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel returned to Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, a lot of people probably slept better instantly.

The trio has been good together most of the time this season, certainly in four straight victories at home that have kept the team's playoff chances beating strongly.

Accounting for all three regulation-time goals in Tuesday's 4-3 shootout win over Tampa Bay, the line has seven goals and 22 points in the four games of the homestand so far.

On the season, Ladd has 41 points, Wheeler 35 points and Little 28 points in 43 games.

"Just more mature, I would think," Noel said, asked what the difference in the unit might be this season. "I see the maturity part of it, see that quite a bit more. That's just doing things a little bit better.

"They have an advantage, that line. They've played together for two years. It's a huge advantage. But they've earned that right. They've had success. They enjoy it, they know it always doesn't go, but for the most part they've found a way to make it work."

The coach even went so far as to make the declaration that Little, Ladd and Wheeler have earned the label as a bona fide No. 1 NHL line.

"You've really got to tip your hat to them, the three of them, they've done a good job at becoming a top line in the National Hockey League," Noel said. "Whereas before, even last year, you're like, 'Are they or aren't they or what are they?' Well, it's pretty hard to argue right now. They've certainly matured there."

Those assessments are fine, but more is required as the Jets continue their quest for the playoffs.

They enter tonight's home game against Carolina in a points tie, at 46, with the New York Rangers. They have played one more game than the Rangers, but do today hold the tiebreaker (regular-season wins, excluding shootouts) in case of an end-of-season tie.

Winnipeg is also four points back of Southeast Division-leading Washington.

Ladd, who leads the team this season with 18 goals after Tuesday's pair, said he has noticed an even smoother fit with his regular linemates this season.

"I'd like to think we've progressed in the last three years with our games," he said Wednesday after the team held a brief practice at the MTS Centre. "It goes along with the confidence."

"Everyone has some portion of leadership in them," the coach added. "Everyone leads but the key is, is anyone following you? They follow Andrew."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2013 D3

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