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This article was published 13/1/2019 (1100 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
He's been knocked down a few pegs on the team's talent pecking order thanks to the emergence of several flashy young stars. But former top-line centre Bryan Little is proving he's still got plenty of game left — not to mention a flair for the dramatic.
The 31-year-old veteran buried a loose puck with 10.1 seconds left in overtime Sunday as the Winnipeg Jets rallied for a 4-3 victory over the Anaheim Ducks at Bell MTS Place.
"I was kind of trying to find a seam to (Jacob Trouba) and ended up just shooting it. I think we were both whacking at it for like four or five seconds and it got right on my stick and I just tried to shovel it up," Little said of scoring the game-winner for a second straight contest.
Anaheim began the day having dropped 10 straight games but looked like they might snap the streak after racing out to a pair of leads in the game. But the misery continued as they fell apart down the stretch, which included giving up the tying goal with under six minutes left in the third period.
Winnipeg improves to 29-14-2 and pulls two points ahead of Nashville for top spot in the Central Division, with two games in hand on the Predators.
Coach Paul Maurice wasn't surprised to see Little come through in the clutch one game after his 500th career point helped lead the Jets to a win over Detroit.
"His role has changed here as Mark Scheifele has emerged as the player that goes with Blake Wheeler. Now he’s playing with two young guys that are absolutely learning the game. Whether that was Nik Ehlers, (Sunday) it was Jack Roslovic, there’s lots to learn, lots to teach. And we still expect him to produce," said Maurice.
"So he’s made all the adjustments every night, so much of it is just sheer will and determination on his part, that you’re frustrated for him when he’s not getting some results around the net because he feels that pressure, he wants to perform. With Bryan I’ve never had the sense it was about his numbers, that he had a care about that. It was helping the team win, not letting the team down. So I think he had some frustration when there weren’t some points coming, because he felt it in that manner. But he just scores big goals now. He’s got the game-winners, he’s got his confidence back."
As Sunday's game began, it looked like the Hockey Gods might have a different outcome in mind and perhaps give the reeling Ducks a break.
"(Anaheim) came in here guns blazing. Obviously, it hasn’t been easy for them lately and they’ve got a lot of guys who have won a lot of games in this league and came out really hard and made it tough on us," said captain Blake Wheeler.
Brian Gibbons opened the scoring just 2:19 into the opening period when his pass attempt was accidentally booted by Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot past Connor Hellebuyck. Gibbons' goal was his first it 65 games dating back to Dec. 12, 2017.
Rickard Rakell made it 2-0 later in the period when his shot snuck just under the crossbar to beat Hellebuyck. At the time, it gave Anaheim two goals on just five shots.
Wheeler scored with 59 seconds left in the opening frame while on the power play. Winnipeg tried a new wrinkle with the man-advantage Sunday, with Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele basically switching spots. It paid off as Wheeler, normally the set-up man, became the shooter for his ninth of the season.
"It just changed the momentum a little bit and gave us a little boost. That’s the power play's job. They didn’t spend a whole lot of time in our zone in the first and they got a good break on the first (goal). To cut that in half going into the first intermission was a little boost," said Wheeler.
Laine, playing in his 200th regular-season game, broke out of a scoring slump when he converted a one-timer pass from Little just 2:24 into the second period. Laine's 25th of the year was his first in seven games and just second in the past 13. He made a terrific play to get a stick on a bouncing feed and blast it past Anaheim goalie John Gibson.
"Honestly, I apologized because it was a bad pass I thought. It was a bit in front of him and rolling but I should know by now that he can fire those things. I’m surprised just how much heat he got on that one (but) nothing really surprises me when it comes to his shot anymore," said Little.
Laine is just the seventh player in NHL history to have three seasons of at least 25 goals prior to hitting their 21st birthday.
Winnipeg had a few good looks to take the lead as the period progressed, only for Andrew Cogliano to do so with just over four minutes left in the middle frame. A seemingly harmless shot from an awkward angle near the goal-line found its way through the former Vezina Trophy finalist, the latest in a growing stretch of iffy goals he's allowed in recent games.
Hellebuyck has now surrendered at least three goals in 10 of his past 12 starts, a total of 36 goals during that span.
"The third one, doesn’t happen very often, and when it’s in the manner of the game where you’re down two, tie the game and then the third ones looks like that, that can be really challenging for a goalie to get through," said Maurice. "So at the end of it we’re going to need one more. We can’t tell you which one that’s going to be, but we’re going to need one more save to win this game and he found it in overtime."
Chiarot tied it with 5:55 to play, getting a good bounce of his own after the earlier bad break cost his team a goal. His point shot took a hop off the ice just in front of Gibson and went past him. The goal came after some great work down low from the reunited TLC line of Brandon Tanev, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp. Maurice put the trio together earlier in the period to try and help spark his team.
"They just play at the right end and they keep their game so simple that when you put enough pucks at the net and traffic at the net you’re going to score some goals," said Maurice.
The overtime was a wild, wide-open affair. Highlights include a great pad save by Hellebuyck off Cam Fowler in the opening minute — Scheifele appeared to slash Fowler's stick on the play but was not penalized — and Kyle Connor ringing a shot off the post. Then came Little's winner, his 10th of the year off the rush with Jacob Trouba.
"It’s not an easy game. I think we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game going into it. We got down. We never really gave in. I think we really like our third and found a way to come back," said Trouba, who praised Hellebuyck for his save a few moments earlier.
"That’s kind of what he's done the whole time I’ve played with him — he finds a way to make big saves. And that’s what you need. That’s what a game comes down to — a goalie makes a big stop and you put in a goal at the other end," he said.
The Jets close out a three-game homestand Tuesday night when they host the Vegas Golden Knights in the first meeting between the teams since the Western Conference final last spring, which Vegas won in five games.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.