Snapping out of sophomore slump, little by Little

Published Dec. 14, 2010 3:12 p.m. ET

By John Manasso
December 14, 2010

Something about Bryan Little's body language just looked different on Monday night. And that was before he scored the game-winning goal in overtime to beat the Ottawa Senators 4-3 at the Scotiabank Centre

The Thrashers' 23-year-old center has four goals in his past three games and is showing the strong form of his 2008-09 rookie season, when he netted 31 goals. He has nine in 25 games this season, which would put him on pace for 30 except for the fact that he already has missed six games because of injury.

It's one of many positive signs for the Thrashers, who won for the 10th time in 12 games and whose 37 points place them fifth in the Eastern Conference, and just two points behind slumping Washington for the Southeast Division lead.

Little needs only four goals to tie his disappointing output of the 79 games he played last season. Little did some soul-searching in the offseason to fix his game, and one of the measures he took was to consult a sports psychologist.

One person who noted that Little did not seem himself last season was his former junior coach with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League. Marty Williamson, who now coaches Niagara's OHL franchise, was watching on Monday as Little played in his home province.

Little's two-goal effort brought a smile to Williamson's face as he noted that the game-winning goal was vintage Little: The center took advantage of a turnover by Ottawa's Jason Spezza high in Atlanta's defensive zone, raced up ice down the right wing and beat goalie Brian Elliot with a wrist shot high to the short side.

"That overtime goal sure did" remind Williamson of Little at his best, the former coach said. "The quick step for him to get loose and finish like he did. I know he's on a bit of a hot streak now. It's nice to see them going in for him. He's tough on himself. It's nice to see that big smile on his face."

Little has played with Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart on the second line for the most part, with Rich Peverley centering Andrew Ladd on the left and usually Niclas Bergfors on the right on the top line ever since Little suffered a concussion Oct. 29 against Buffalo. Those combinations have given the Thrashers two potent scoring lines: Little's line has 26 goals, Peverley's 24. By comparison, the entire New Jersey Devils team, with struggling Ilya Kovalchuk, has scored 53 goals.

Little, with his speed and offensive instincts, is an integral part of making that second line go. Watching the overtime goal reminded me of a comparison made by Dan Marr, the Thrashers' director of amateur scouting and player personnel, when Little was drafted 12th overall in 2006. Marr compared Little's game to that of Chris Drury.

In his rookie year, Little seemed headed in that direction. But last season raised question marks. After signing a new contract in August, Little talked about the relief he felt. He just wanted to put his sophomore campaign behind him and talked about working with the sports psychologist.

"It's something new for me," he said at the time. "I think it has helped a bit. I need to do a better job of taking it one game at a time. Last year, I think I got down on myself at times and I got frustrated about it and it carried over more."

Williamson gave some insight into Little's use of the psychologist.

"You know, I think he would do that just to stop the ebbs and flows a little bit and not worry about only having to score," he said. "If he's not scoring, he gets down, and that brings down other parts of his game, and that makes him a below-average player, and he should never be a below-average player."

Williamson noted that after Little scored his first goal Monday, on a rebound, his body language "looked positive."

"He seems to be going to those [high-traffic] areas," Williamson said. "I don't know if that's a constant line he's been on but he really likes the coaching there. I've heard that through his family and all that. He really likes the environment in Atlanta."

Williamson liked what he saw even when Little wasn't on the ice.

"They panned to the bench and he was saying, 'Good shot,'" Williamson said. "It brought back good memories. He was always that way, complimenting the other guy. To me, that was a little thing that said: there's Bryan. He was the captain of our team. He had great captain-type qualities; he was always crediting other players."

Coach Craig Ramsay and his staff seem to have turned around the fortunes of several young players who have been integral to the team's success, including goalie Ondrej Pavelec and defenseman Zach Bogosian. Another young player who has made important contributions is rookie Alexander Burmistrov, who Williamson also coached in Barrie.

Despite Burmistrov's size (about 170 pounds), Williamson is not surprised to see the Russian making a successful jump, even though he was just 18 when he started the season. Burmistrov has five goals, eight assists and is plus-2 while having drawn countless penalties by opposing players.

"I'm not surprised a little bit," Williamson said. "He was unbelievable. His hockey IQ is through the roof