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Little's three points lead Jets past coach-less Lightning

The SportsXchange

WINNIPEG -- Talk about kicking a club when it's down.

Winnipeg center Bryan Little scored a goal and set up two others to spark the Jets to a 3-2 victory over the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning -- who fired their coach less than 24 hours before -- in NHL play Sunday night at sold-out MTS Centre.

Little opened the scoring with his fifth goal of the season in the first period and then created a turnover that led to Dustin Byfuglien's power-play goal early in the middle period as the Jets (17-14-2) increased their lead over the idle Carolina Hurricanes to four points atop the Southeast Division.

Little added an assist on a Tobias Enstrom goal later in the second to cap the scoring for the Jets.

The Lightning (13-16-1), next to last in the Eastern Conference, gave Guy Boucher his walking papers after a 5-3 defeat to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, although the news didn't break until Sunday morning.

The team was coached by committee Sunday night, with Steve Thomas, Dan Lacroix and Martin Raymond behind the bench. Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman could name a new head coach as early as Monday.

"I'm hopeful I can get something in place as quickly as possible," Yzerman said on Sunday afternoon from a downtown Winnipeg hotel.

The Jets led 1-0 and 3-2 at the period breaks, but the Lightning wouldn't go quietly. Cory Conacher scored with about 15 minutes left in the final period to cut the lead to 3-2, but Jets' netminder Ondrej Pavelec was brilliant the rest of the way.

He finished with 23 saves, while Tampa Bay goalie Cedrick Desjardins stopped 21 shots and is winless in three starts this year.

Lightning center Steve Stamkos ripped his 22nd goal of the season in the second period, tops among all NHL players.

Stamkos said the team performed admirably after an emotional day.

"(The firing is) something that people didn't expect to deal with on a game day, but it is what it is," he said. "I thought everyone responded really well. I think the coaching staff today did a great job, (and) the players did.

"I thought we played a real solid game. We didn't get the result we wanted, but (it was) a very solid team effort and I'm proud of the guys."

Yzerman hired Boucher in 2010, and the move paid off immediately when he led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference final in 2011. But the club failed to make the postseason during the 2011-12 campaign and isn't expected to reach the playoffs this spring, currently occupying 14th spot in the conference.

Winnipeg blueliner Toby Enstrom, who returned to the lineup Sunday after missing 19 games with a shoulder injury, scored his third of the season.

Slight but crafty, Enstrom looked like he hadn't missed a beat while reunited with Byfuglien on the Jets' top defensive pairing.

He was among the league leaders in points by a blueliner prior to being knocked out of the lineup Feb. 21 after getting crushed along the boards by Pittsburgh Penguins' forward Pascal Dupuis on Feb. 15.

Enstrom has 14 points in 14 games this season.

The Jets didn't make Enstrom available to the media after the game, however, his teammates had plenty to say about him, particularly his puck-moving skill on the power-play.

"Toby helps out a lot in that. His presence along the back end, his patience just seems to calm everyone down, especially from our zone out," said captain Andrew Ladd. "He makes a lot of great plays, little plays, that maybe people don't notice that help us get out of our end and make plays in the other team's end."

Pavelec said Enstrom is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL.

"The way he played after a few weeks (off), a lot of people would be surprised. But I wasn't," said Pavelec. "He's a great player. It's nice to have him back."

Little, meanwhile, said he felt a huge sense of relief when he found the back of the net for his first goal in 10 games.

"Goals haven't been easy to come by for me this season," said Little, who was also stopped on a shorthanded breakaway early in the third period. "My linemates are playing really good and I've fit into more of a play-making role this year with those guys scoring. But it felt really good to bury one myself.

The Jets, third in the Eastern Conference, play the Hurricanes on Tuesday night in Raleigh, N.C.

Winnipeg was coming off a two-game losing skid after a pair of dismal efforts late last week at home against the Washington Capitals, 4-0 Thursday and 6-1 Friday.

Head coach Claude Noel said scoring first against Tampa Bay was a huge lift.

"For us, you grip your stick a little tighter. There's enough stress in our world right now. So, the fact we got on the board, it energized us ... it set the pace for us," he said.

NOTES: The Jets head out on a two-game road trip, with stops in Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Lightning, meanwhile, head home to face Buffalo, New Jersey and Florida. ... For a club mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Lightning sure can shoot. They ranked first in the NHL in team shooting percentage (12.24) coming into the game. ... The Jets were without a pair of Top-6 blueliners, Mark Stuart and Ron Hainsey, injured during back-to-back games with the Capitals on Thursday and Friday. Both are listed as day to day. ... Winnipeg center Olli Jokinen was third-worst in the NHL with a minus-15 plus-minus rating prior to Sunday's play, 772nd out of 774 players, to be exact. ... The last time the Lightning played in Winnipeg, Steven Stamkos scored his 60th goal of the 2011-12 campaign in the season finale for both teams. ... Winnipeg forward Evander Kane is the only player in the NHL with over 100 hits and 100 shots on goal.

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