A Winnipeg Jets line that was a liability early has suddenly become one of their biggest strengths.
The second line of Patrik Laine, Bryan Little, and Nikolaj Ehlers were invisible in the Jets’ first few games of the season. Through their first three games, they’d combined for just a single point and been overwhelmingly ineffective. Winnipeg Sun sportswriter Paul Friesen, for example, identified the second line’s lack of success as a “glaring early-season issue” that would surely lead to losses if they didn’t start to factor in on the scoresheet. (from ‘Jets top priority? Get second line going,’ The Winnipeg Sun, 10/10/18.)
While every issue looms larger with small sample sizes, for a team such as the Jets – whose depth and ability to roll four lines that can score has historically led to their success — this was an issue that needed to be resolved.
Second Line Beginning to Find Their Footing
Thankfully, this issue appears to be sorting itself out. In fact, a strong argument can be made that they’ve been the Jets’ best line through the first four games of the Jets’ critical six-game homestand.
In the Jets’ most recent game — Saturday’s matinee against the Arizona Coyotes — the Laine-Little-Ehlers line was flying. While none of them hit the scoresheet, their yeoman’s work was key to a hard-fought 5-3 win.
The Jets looked tenuous through a period and were tied 1-1. At 9:07 of the second, Ehlers used his speed and forced Jason Demers to haul him down. On the ensuing power play, the revamped unit, consisting of Little, Ehlers, and Mathieu Perreault, buzzed around the offensive zone like angry wasps, peppering six shots on Antii Raanta and holding the offensive zone for more than 1:30 straight.
While the Jets didn’t score on that power play, the momentum directly translated to Tyler Myers’ go-ahead goal at 14:28 and Josh Morrissey’s power-play goal a little more than three minutes later. On the latter goal, Laine won a battle on the boards to keep a puck in the zone. Mark Scheifele then took it from Kyle Connor behind the goal line and centered it for Josh Morrissey in the slot, who one-timed it home.
Growing Confidence Leading to Success
Their success against the Coyotes didn’t come from thin air — it’s borne out of the confidence they’ve been building since returning to Bell MTS Place for their longest home stint of the season back on Oct. 14.
The Jets’ game against the Carolina Hurricanes last Sunday was no masterpiece — it was a grind in which they were outplayed and outworked for vast stretches. However, Bryan Little did what a wily vet is supposed to do: step up in a big moment.
Little notched the game-winning goal with 2:09 remaining in the third period when he took a pass from Morrissey off the rush and wired it past Petr Mrazek’s glove.
— NHL (@NHL) October 15, 2018
“(It) seems like we’re just working together a lot better and more chances are coming from that. I think confidence is huge, once you get that first one off your back, the legs feel a bit lighter and you feel a lot better out there,” Little said to NHL.com’s Jamie Thomas.
The line has looked consistently dangerous since, combining for nine points, and complemented the terrific trio of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler. They are playing closer together, which has led to increased opportunities, more creativity, and an increased ability to hit each other — and their blueliners — with tape-to-tape passes.
Little Has Been “Captain Clutch”
Little, especially, has resurged recently, having tallied a third-period game-winner in two of his team’s last three victories.
In addition to the game-winner against the Hurricanes, the Atlanta Thrashers holdover put home a nifty backhand on Thursday night against the Vancouver Canucks that put the Jets up 2-1 and gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Ehlers was also in on the goal, tallying the primary assist on a short-range pass that hit Little in stride.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) October 19, 2018
Against the Canucks, Little also recorded an assist on the Jets’ fourth and final goal, using a well-timed fake shot to buy time before finding a wide-open Dustin Byfuglien.
“As far as he knows, Bryan Little doesn’t possess any superpowers,” Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter Mike McIntyre wrote. “But the veteran Winnipeg Jets centre could get used to playing the role of hockey hero who swoops in to save the day.” (from ‘Little goes a long way,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 10/18/18.)
TSN analyst Ray Ferraro credits this success to the renewed familiarity between Little and his linemates. If you recall, Little stopped playing with Ehlers and Laine after the Jets acquired Paul Stastny at the trade deadline.
Don’t Throw the Line a Parade Just Yet
While they’ve undoubtedly improved, the second line still has foibles to work out.
There’s the fact Laine hasn’t scored at even strength yet and Little has not assisted any of his goals. Questions still swirl around whether Little is a suitable centre for the line. Ehlers, especially, is at his best when he is allowed to move east-west, and Little is more adept at playing a north-south game.
There’s also the fact Ehlers has gone a seemingly unfathomable 24 straight games without lighting the lamp, a dubious streak that dates back to Apr. 3.
However, even though they still have room for improvement, the second line is trending in the right direction. They’ll need to continue to show their worth and provide balance to the Jets attack if they want to be successful through tougher portions of their schedule.