Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Noel won't slap blame on minus-11 top line for latest loss

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DISAPPOINTMENT was the word Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel insisted upon Tuesday, asked to dissect how his team and its playoff hopes came unravelled Monday night against the Ottawa Senators.

And Noel was quite clear that there would be no witch hunt for the guilty parties, namely the team's top line of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, who combined for a minus-11 against the Sens in the 6-4 defeat.

It left the Jets with just six games to play and in need of a major miracle from 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

After the game, Noel rambled a bit, clearly uncomfortable about heaping direct blame on the top trio. The morning after, there continued to be a tone of forgiveness in his assessment, the gist of it that Little, Ladd and Wheeler shoulder a heavy load for the Jets and that it would be positively ungrateful to just throw them under the bus.

"The problem for me is that people will look at things and try to target things for them," Noel explained. "What do you want me to do, throw fuel on the fire? I don't want to do that. They've given their heart and soul for this team.

"They've battled hard. I don't want to add to that. We're in a team game trying to win games and to single out people and... this is a line that's taken on a heavy load and had big growth this year.

"You look at the way they've played; it's a hard task for them, playing against the top lines, holding them at bay and still trying to produce yourself in all the games. I've been in that position as a player. It's pretty tough."

The coach made it sound like more than reporters have been asking him to be the hanging judge in recent days.

"It's like somebody asked me the other day, 'Is it this? Is it that? Is it them or is it them?' " he said. "Well, it's us. Everybody contributes to the game. How do you impact the game? You hope to do it in a positive way.

"I don't want to single out one part. I don't know if it's forgiving but I don't like to just take that one game... they know what they have to do. They know the level of pressure that's on them. Andrew Ladd mentioned it a month ago, where the best players have to be the best players. That's what they try to do and they set out to do it. They played hard to do that."

Little and Ladd, both at minus-four, and Wheeler at minus-three -- representing low-water marks for each of them this season -- were the line that went out after Evander Kane had tied the game for the third time, 4-4 with 2:57 left in the third period.

Daniel Alfredsson scored 24 seconds later, putting Ottawa ahead for the fourth and final time.

"We've been doing it all year," Little said Tuesday. "It's something that the coach has wanted, the matchup against the other team's top line, and it's hard some nights. You're playing against the other team's top players and most of the time, they're superstars."

"It's a challenge but we try to play our best against them. Some nights, it doesn't go as you want. Some nights you play good against them, shut them down or get a couple of goals.

"Last night was one of those nights that we didn't play as well against them."

You could almost admire Wheeler's defiance of Monday's plus-minus stats.

"I'm not going to recount every goal," the big right-winger said. "There's two ways to look at that stat. If you don't watch that game and at the end of the game say, 'Those guys were minus-four, minus-three, must have had a rough night.'

"I look at that game and I talked to some people after the game, and there's no way we should have been minus-10 as a line. The scoring chances we had, we could have been plus-10 as a line.

"It was one of those nights, the body of work we put in, you look at it after the game and it didn't match up. It was a big game and we expect better from ourselves. That result is unacceptable but it's one of those things; maybe there's no explanation for it."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2012 0

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