WINNIPEG – Imagine all the hope and possibility and life a young man feels on his draft night, when he gets selected in the first round—even if it’s 2006 and the team that calls him to the podium is the Atlanta Thrashers, an expansion outfit still searching for its first postseason berth after six years of baby steps.
Now imagine than man cracks the NHL lineup the season after the Thrashers finally do qualify for the best spring dance going… and loyally, dutifully waits 11 more years to feel what it’s like to win a Stanley Cup playoff game.
And now — mercifully, exhilaratingly, before a humanity-flooded city as rabid as the Winnipeg Jets’ on-ice attack — a whole dang series.
It only took him 763 games.
That young man is Bryan Little, the longest-tenured member of these Thrashers/Jets, who demolished the Minnesota Wild 5-0 Friday night and 4-1 in series that, quite frankly, could’ve gone either way: the Jets’ way or the ex-Thrashers’ way.
“No matter how many years you play, you’re always looking to the future. You’re thinking, There’s gonna be another shot, there’s gonna be another shot. And honestly, 10 years go by and you’ve been in the playoffs once, without a playoff win,” Little says post-win.
So the young man inks another contract extension with the same losing franchise for another half-dozen years, well before his previous five-year deal expires. He wants to give it another go, or six. He’s not so young now, though. He’s 30.
“You start to question things, wondering if you’ll ever get a chance at it,” Little goes on. “The last couple years, you could just tell this team was forming to be an elite team, a team that could do some special things. We had a great season, and now I really feel there’s a lot of belief and confidence in this room.”
It’s spreading. Along Portage, up and down Donald, and beyond.
In response to the surprise game-time scratch of fleet winger Nikolaj Ehlers (who practised Thursday and was spotted cruising near the press box snack table Friday night with no visible signs of injury), Little was elevated from the third line to the second for Game 5.
Coach Paul Maurice asked if he’d be cool moving from centre to wing for the biggest game of his life. Of course, he would.
Then Little delivered. Heck, who didn’t?
After waiting 31 years between playoff series victories, Winnipeg only needed wait 31 seconds after puck drop to sense it was in for something loud and beautiful and fierce.
Given too much space, Jacob Trouba zipped a laser at 0:31 past poor Devan Dubnyk, who got hung out to dry so often in the past week he may have shrunk. The fastest playoff goal in Winnipeg’s history.
Next it was Little’s turn, as the properly bearded man stretched out for a slick redirect on former Thrasher Dustin Byfuglien’s point shot from Hades.
“I’ve had chances this series. To get one like that where it tips in and goes in really slow, I’ll take anything,” Little says. “Playing in Atlanta, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to experience playing on a team like this and playing in a city like this, where hockey is loved this much. I just feel lucky.”
The Jets descended on the hapless Wild like a tornado of hornets colliding with a cold front of ballpeen hammers.
Fourth-liner Brandon Tanev pounced on a brutal giveaway in the slot and scored unassisted. The score read 3-0 before you could make a dent in your popcorn.
Earlier in the day, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau was asked for the best way to suck the fans out of game: “Well, if you score three goals, I think that might do it.”
Third-liner Joel Armia let another Byfuglien blast bounce off him and in, and with the score 4-0 at the game’s 11:59 mark, Wild backup Alex Stalock was thrown to the wolves.
“The building gets going, and things start to feel out of control,” Dubnyk said in defeat.
Boudreau used the word “rattled” to describe his bench.
“I mean, we couldn’t handle the puck very well. We weren’t making our passes in the first 10 minutes,” he said. “Looked like we were nervous out there.”
The Wild failed to score a goal in the last seven periods of this series. Winnipeg scored first every game.
“Some guys are going to not be able to handle the pressure, and some guys are going to love it. They want the responsibility on them,” said Boudreau, before everything went white.
That feels like every single Jet.
Six of Winnipeg’s regulars were too hurt or too suspended to dress in Game 5, and another (Armia) departed early with an upper-body injury.
“We’ve been doing it all year, even in past years. We’ve dealt with injuries. It’s nothing new for us,” Trouba said. “At this point of the year, it doesn’t really matter. You do what the team needs you to do, and do it to the best of your ability.”
Little is a great example. Mark Scheifele, the new No. 1 centre in town, describes Little as a mentor and a battler, a shrewd face-off hand and a special-teams weapon.
“I’m sure it’s huge for him,” Scheifele says. “I’m still learning things from him. That’s what makes good leaders. They lead by example, they do things on a day-to-day basis that help make your team better, and that’s what you need to be successful.”
Maurice looks at Little work in this series and sees a man who deserves a goal on a historic night.
“There are a handful of guys who have been here for the six years, and it’s been a grind,” the coach explains.
“Especially the last two years because of all of this youth-movement idea is fine and well, but it’s the veteran guys who, in a lot of ways, pay for it. I get that.
“The kids are on the ice, they make a mistake and go back out. But the veteran guys have the cameras in their face the last two years, but they all understand the shortest distance [for] us going from where we were to getting better was playing these kids all the time.”
When Little glided to the NHL handshake line a winner for once, his mind acted like the Wild shooters—it drew a complete blank.
“I didn’t really know what to say,” Little says. “Last time I won a playoff series was in the minor leagues my first year. It’s kind of strange being on that side, but it’s a good kind of strange.
“Once you get that action, that taste, you want to keep going.”