The Winnipeg Jets’ 60-minute skate was, by the sounds of it, one of the most important practices of Bryan Little’s career.
No specific teaching moments struck a chord for the veteran centre. Far more critical was how he felt physically before, during and after the session at Bell MTS Place.
Sidelined with a concussion since the final game of the pre-season, Little will almost assuredly return Sunday night when the Jets host the Edmonton Oilers. He felt ready to suit up Thursday when the New York Islanders visited but was given another few days to recover.
“Really, really important for me. That’s one of the big reasons I didn’t play Thursday was because I really haven’t had that practice time. I’ve basically been skating on my own and doing a few pre-game (morning) skates. So, (Saturday’s practice) was perfect. It felt good to get out there and do some game-like situations. It felt really good,” said Little, 31.
“If anything, I’m probably going to have to calm myself down because I’m going to be really wired up and ready to go.”
Little was between Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor during line rushes Saturday, replacing Andrew Copp, who returned to the wing with centre Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic.
Copp, Ehlers and Connor have proven to be a formidable trio as far as puck control and the creation of scoring chances, but has fired just three goals at 5-on-5 through nine contests.
Jets coach Paul Maurice clearly feels comfortable with the dependability of Little up the middle, and stated in recent days that slotting Little in his usual role should make for a more comfortable return after weeks of rest and recovery.
Maurice liked what he saw in practice from the 13-year NHL veteran.
“His first real practice with the group (Wednesday) — and it wasn’t a heavy practice — he still didn’t look like himself. But (Saturday) he’s moving like Bryan has always moved. He got up and down the ice, he made some plays and he worked real hard,” Maurice said. “At the end of it, he’s got a big smile on his face because it was a fast and hard practice in terms of the pace of it. And he handled it fine, so he’s feeling good.”
Little’s injury spoiled a long stretch of consecutive days at the office. He played all 82 games in each of the last two regular seasons, plus 23 combined playoff games. Before that, he missed 25 games with a fractured vertebrae during the 2015-16 season and then was shelved for 23 games the following season with a knee injury suffered in the season-opener.
Watching the action from the press box never gets easier, he said.
“It’s frustrating missing games, and it’s even harder at the beginning of the year because you just want to get going and be part of it all,” he said, adding he’s grateful for NHL’s concussion protocol.
“You want to get back faster. But you’re doing the workouts, the skates and all the tests that they want you to do. Doing all the right things to get ready again.”
Assistant sports editor
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