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As far as he knows, Bryan Little doesn’t possess any superpowers. But the veteran Winnipeg Jets centre could get used to playing the role of hockey hero who swoops in to save the day.
For the second time this week, Little pulled the trigger on the game-winning goal and helped salvage a valuable two points for his team.
Last Sunday, it came with just over two minutes left in the game to break a 1-1 tie against the Carolina Hurricanes in a 3-1 win. On Thursday night, it happened with just over 15 minutes left in the game to break a 1-1 tie against the Vancouver Canucks in a 4-1 win.
No, this is not a recording. But it’s something Little and his teammates would certainly welcome becoming a regular thing.
“I think our line’s playing a lot better. We’re creating more opportunities for ourselves out there. It seems like we’re just working together a lot better and more chances are coming from that. I think, too, confidence is huge. Once you get the first one off your back, the legs feel a bit lighter, you feel a lot better out there,” Little said following the victory.
Winnipeg improves to 4-2-1 on the year, while Vancouver falls to 4-3-0. The Canucks had won three straight games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins prior to arriving in River City to wrap up a six-game road trip.
The final result might suggest this was a relatively easy night for the Jets. But the fact is the game was very much up for grabs until Little seemed to light a fire under the Jets and the floodgates opened with three goals.
It was a much more welcome third period for the Jets than Tuesday night’s meltdown against the Edmonton Oilers, in which Winnipeg blew a 4-1 lead in the final 20 minutes before falling 5-4 in overtime.
“I think we had that slow start and just got better and better throughout the game. That third period, we had that hunger out there and it didn’t stop. We kept pushing and that’s why we got rewarded with more goals,” said Little.
Winnipeg is considered an NHL heavyweight, while Vancouver is seen as one of the league’s weaker links as they go through a rebuild. But through two periods Thursday, you would have had a hard time identifying which team was which.
“It was really, really good to build in the game because I thought we came out a little tense early. They had a 6-1 shot advantage and we didn’t get first touch on very many pucks through the first eight minutes of that period,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
“A little bit of confidence starts to return. All of a sudden, you look faster and now things are starting to go. They had a pretty good push there near the end of the second, but the third period was very important for the team’s psyche, that we can drive at the tense times in games. That’s what you want. That’s something that you have to build again. When the pressure is there, that’s when you want your team to be able to drive and feel confident. Almost play, loose isn’t the right word, but a driving game.”
The big turning point came with Vancouver’s Alex Edler in the penalty box for an iffy tripping penalty in which it appeared Adam Lowry simply lost his footing and fell to the ice.
On the ensuing power play, Little took a pass from linemate Nikolaj Ehlers and beat Canucks goaltender Anders Nilsson with a nifty backhand to give his team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish 4:58 into the final frame.
The Jets found their legs after that, especially Winnipeg’s much-maligned second line. Little rang a shot off the crossbar a few minutes later, once again off an Ehlers feed, and you could see the confidence growing by the shift.
“Once we got that go-ahead goal it seemed like we turned it up even more. That’s what you need. That’s what we were looking to do,” said Little.
Andrew Copp gave the Jets some breathing room when he swatted home a loose puck to make it 3-1 with just over seven minutes to play.
Little factored in the final goal, finding a wide-open Dustin Byfuglien for a one-timer with just over five minutes left in the game. Byfuglien returned to the lineup after missing two games with an upper-body injury and had a pair of assists to go with his first goal of the season.
“I thought we put together a decent game. It’s nice to be back and we got our two points. We just kept it simple, stuck to our game plan, we got pucks to the net and we just kept battling,” said Byfuglien.
“I think later on in the game we started moving a little quicker when we got the puck, and just making that first pass.”
Jets winger Patrik Laine opened the scoring late in the first period, firing a shot from his familiar spot on the power play. It was the third goal of the year for Laine, all of them coming with the man advantage.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler served up a perfect cross-seam pass to Laine and hit a milestone on the play, recording his 500th point with the Winnipeg franchise.
Vancouver’s Bo Horvat tied the game midway through the second period, beating Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba off the rush and sneaking the puck past netminder Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck finished with 26 saves, including breakaway stops earlier in the game against Tim Schaller and Brock Boeser.
“I felt like I did my job tonight. I was part of the team and they played so well in front of me, they made it pretty easy for me, and when they got their chances, they capitalized. It was an ideal game for us,” said Hellebuyck. “Shows the character in this room. I believe in these guys and they believe in each other. It feels good and we’ve got to continue building.”
The Jets are 12-0-1 in their last 13 regular-season games at Bell MTS Place dating back to last season.
Winnipeg continues its season-long six-game homestand on Saturday afternoon against the Arizona Coyotes.
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.