June 20, 2019

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Little, linemates step up to fill Ehlers' skates

THE Winnipeg Jets’ and Bryan Little’s recent run of lacklustre hockey took a hiatus Sunday as the centreman snapped an 11-game goal-less drought while the Jets rolled to a 5-1 home win over the Dallas Stars.

Little notched his seventh of the season as the Jets improved to 26-13-2 at the season’s official midway mark — rebounding from a four-game stretch that saw the club record just one win. The Jets on Sunday replicated their play of early December, when they opened the month with eight wins in nine games and were averaging more than four goals per contest.

Still, even with a dip in positive results over the past couple weeks, Winnipeg finds itself in a good position in the standings. They have a one-point lead on the Nashville Predators — with two games in hand — for top spot in the Central Division, and are just two points behind the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights, both of whom have also played two and four more games, respectively, for the lead in the Western Conference.

“It just shows that we can still get better. We’re happy with where we’re at in the standings. We’ve played some good hockey, but overall, as good as we’ve played, we know we have another level that we can get to,” Little said.

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THE Winnipeg Jets’ and Bryan Little’s recent run of lacklustre hockey took a hiatus Sunday as the centreman snapped an 11-game goal-less drought while the Jets rolled to a 5-1 home win over the Dallas Stars.

Little notched his seventh of the season as the Jets improved to 26-13-2 at the season’s official midway mark — rebounding from a four-game stretch that saw the club record just one win. The Jets on Sunday replicated their play of early December, when they opened the month with eight wins in nine games and were averaging more than four goals per contest.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic (28), Bryan Little (18), Mathieu Perreault (85) and Tyler Myers (57) celebrate after Little scored late against the Dallas Stars during third period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, January 6, 2019.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic (28), Bryan Little (18), Mathieu Perreault (85) and Tyler Myers (57) celebrate after Little scored late against the Dallas Stars during third period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, January 6, 2019.

Still, even with a dip in positive results over the past couple weeks, Winnipeg finds itself in a good position in the standings. They have a one-point lead on the Nashville Predators — with two games in hand — for top spot in the Central Division, and are just two points behind the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights, both of whom have also played two and four more games, respectively, for the lead in the Western Conference.

"It just shows that we can still get better. We’re happy with where we’re at in the standings. We’ve played some good hockey, but overall, as good as we’ve played, we know we have another level that we can get to," Little said.

"The games are going to get tougher as the season goes on. There are battles for that last playoff spot. It only gets harder from here. For us, it’s just to elevate our game and to get ready for that."

The Jets entered the season a heavy favourite to compete for the Stanley Cup. They put the league on notice last season, when they finished with the second best record in the NHL before being eliminated by Vegas in the Western Conference final. Part of the Jets’ success this year has been their ability to stay healthy. But a string of recent injuries, including losing defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and winger Nikolaj Ehlers — two premier players on the roster — just last week has tested the Jets’ depth.

Jack Roslovic, who slid into Ehlers’ place on the second power play unit, fed Little with a nice pass on the man-advantage Sunday that led to his third-period goal. Improved play from Tyler Myers — who also scored against the Stars — Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov has helped ease the pain of losing such a minute-puncher like Byfuglien, who averages a team-high 24:30 of ice time per game.

"It’s been good. A young team, and had some challenges with travel and a heavy schedule. And some injuries at times. But we’re learning about our team," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. "We’ve got players developing who are becoming different players. We can still look the same way year over year with that, we hope. But we’re comfortable where we’re at."

The long playoff run was a first for the Jets since arriving back in Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season. Before then, Winnipeg had made it to the playoffs just once, in 2015-16, before losing four straight games to the Anaheim Ducks. The surge in accomplishment led to heady expectations for the Jets this year, something the team believes they’ve handled well.

"I think we have a realistic understanding. We haven’t gotten too high when we went on our run, and we’ve been really good at choking off the situation that would make you doubt yourself a whole lot. We’ve been pretty consistent," said Maurice.

Added centre Adam Lowry: "We came into this year and we made huge strides last year to go into the Western Conference final. We really turned the corner and we wanted to establish ourselves as a really strong franchise and a team that can compete every night. Moving forward, you have to handle that pressure because there is going to be pressure to win every night. It’s our job to perform and to perform under those circumstances. Anytime you can emulate that in the regular season, it bodes well to prepare you for the second half, the stretch run and come playoff-time."

The Jets reach the midway mark of the season as one of the strongest clubs on special teams. They rank second in the NHL on the power play with a success rate of 28 per cent. They went 1-for-3 against the Stars, their lone goal just the second PP marker in the past eight games (2-for-18). Winnipeg is just outside the top-10 on the penalty kill, coming in at 11th at 80.7 per cent.

"It’s finding the consistency every night and bringing that intensity that when it comes playoff-time, we’re going to be hitting the ground running. Obviously, it’s tough to replicate that intensity and emotion every game, but it’s important that you almost prime yourself for that," Lowry said. "If you look at the first half, we can be happy with the results and where we’re sitting, but we obviously know that we’re going to need to keep growing. There are a lot of good teams on our side in our conference and in the other conference as well, so if we want to be competitive at the end of the year, there are going to be areas of our game that we need to continue to grow."

The word "playoffs" was echoed a number of times by players in the room, sparking the question of whether the Jets, with plenty of regular-season hockey to play, were actually thinking about the postseason at this point.

"There are 41 games, so we’re exactly halfway," Little said. "It’s in the back of your minds once you hit January, but we realize there is a lot of season left."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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