Bryan Little was back on the ice as the Winnipeg Jets’ second-line centre Friday afternoon.
Mind you, it was only a practice and he was filling in during line rushes because captain Blake Wheeler was away. But Little was conspicuous by his presence just the same.
Out of the lineup since he was struck in the side of the head by a Nikolaj Ehlers slapshot Nov. 5, the veteran forward has skated on his own every second day for the last few weeks, but joined his teammates for drills at Bell MTS Place Friday.
Little was a willing participant, showing plenty of speed while skating with Ehlers and Jack Roslovic, and directed a couple of hard shots at goalies Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit. Although he’s still not available for interviews, Little appeared fresh and, frankly, pretty satisfied with how things went during the nearly 60-minute session.
Winger Andrew Copp (upper body) and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov (lower body) were also part of the group wearing non-contact jerseys. The trio’s participation was a boost to a squad coming off Thursday’s mistake-filled 6-3 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It’s good for the team and it’s good for the guys to be able to come out with us. They always bring such a good energy on the ice. It was great to see them out there," said forward Patrik Laine.
Little was injured against the New Jersey Devils. It took about 30 stitches to close the gash near his left ear. He also spent a couple of days under observation in the Health Sciences Centre’s neurological unit.
There’s still no time frame for his return to the lineup. Head coach Paul Maurice said Little’s participation is being closely monitored and he is "heart-rate restrained."
But Maurice agreed the inclusion of the wounded trio provided a spark.
"Especially on guys that are longer-term, you forget about them. Not in a negative way, more in that you deal with the 20 you have in your lineup. Then all three of them come out today and, whew, those guys are pretty good. It was nice to have them out there," Maurice said.
Copp has been out since Dec. 17 when he collided with Carolina forward Jordan Staal during a 6-3 loss to the Hurricanes, while Kulikov was sidelined Nov. 29 during the Jets’ 3-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.
Maurice said both players could return to the lineup during the four-game road trip that begins today at 1 p.m. in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild. The Jets also make stops in Montreal, Toronto and Boston next week.
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Laine peppered Leafs’ goalie Frederik Andersen with 13 shots Thursday but managed to sneak just one past him in the second period, his 15th goal of the season in Winnipeg’s 41st game.
That’s a 30-goal pace for the talented Finn, who put up 36, 44 and 30 in his first three seasons. But he’s also contributed 25 assists, just three shy of his career best in his rookie campaign.
Naturally, Laine flashed his self-deprecating side when the topic of his tough puck luck against Andersen came up — suggesting, in jest, he’s not the sniper he once was.
"I think at least 10 out of those 13 were, on a good day, I should have scored. But the goalie gets paid, too," Laine said. "I think as a former goal scorer it would be nice to score. You’re not going to score if you don’t shoot. So, that’s kind of my mind set but I’m still looking for my linemates because they almost have 20 goals each, so they know how to put the puck in the net, too."
Left-winger Kyle Connor has a club-leading 21 goals and centre Mark Scheifele has 19.
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No. 1 netminder Hellebuyck is well aware the heavy days of the NHL season are fast approaching and he needs to return to form.
Hellebuyck had an off night against the Leafs. He was responsible for William Nylander’s game-opener because of some careless puck-handling early in the first period and allowed a Mitch Marner shot to squeeze past him late in the second.
He was replaced by Laurent Brossoit prior to the start of the final frame, the second time in his last seven starts that’s happened. In that three-week stretch, he’s 2-4-1 with a 4.10 goals-against average and .875 save percentage. Prior to that, he was 16-8-2 with a 2.34 GAA and .930 SP.
"There are some accomplishments but there’s also some hard times," Hellebuyck said when asked about the first half of the season. "Things are going to get interesting very soon here and we’ve got to start stringing together some wins. The playoff push is on.
"We’ve definitely been giving up more goals than a month ago. But I’m really hoping it’s just ebbs and flows of the season. Because I’m expecting good things. I like my game. It feels even better than it did a month ago. It’s just a matter of staying on it and making sure my details are strong and giving ourselves a chance to win every night."
He wasn’t particularly thrilled about being relieved.
"I never like getting out of a game. I like to battle and I like to fight and show that I care," he said. "Sometimes it’s best for the team that I come out and if that’s the case, I’m going to be a good team player."
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Jansen Harkins is with the Jets but his tremendous play with the Manitoba Moose prior to his promotion has earned him all-star honours in the American Hockey League.
The young forward was named to the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic, set for Ontario, Calif., Jan. 26-27.
Despite spending the last two weeks with the Jets and collecting two assists in six games, Harkins leads the Moose in scoring (7G, 24A).
Winnipeg’s second-round pick in 2015 was named the AHL player of the week for the period ending Nov. 3 and went on to capture player of the month honours in November. He amassed 24 points (4G, 20A) that month.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).