WINNIPEG — Dustin Byfuglien is a big problem for Vegas.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Winnipeg defenceman can do it all, as the Golden Knights saw up close when he helped the Jets win Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with a goal and an assist.
“We got moving our feet right away,” Byfuglien said. “And the ice opened up.”
Byfuglien has a powerful shot, as he showed with a slap shot 1:05 into the Jets’ 4-2 victory .
The 33-year-old former forward, who played right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks during their Stanley Cup run in 2010, can join a rush on offence in even-strength situations and plays on the power play. The NFL-sized player is nimble enough to skate fluidly and he handles the puck with soft hands. Byfuglien can crunch opponents against the boards or on the open ice with checks and kill penalties with savvy positioning.
In Game 1, he did all of that and more.
“You saw the Dustin Byfuglien spectrum,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “He can shoot the puck a ton. He can make soft-hand plays and he can be as big and strong as you want out there.”
Vegas centre William Karlsson was asked to compare Byfuglien with any other player in the league. And he was stumped.
“He’s kind of one of a kind,” Karlsson said.
If the expansion Golden Knights can’t figure out a way to keep the puck away from Byfuglien and work around him offensively, their inaugural season may not last beyond this series.
Game 2 is Monday night in Winnipeg.
Byfuglien leads the league’s defencemen with 15 points and five multi-point games in the playoffs.
“When he is on his game, he is as good as anybody,” Vegas coach Gerrard Gallant. “He’s a big strong man and can play the game any way you want to play it.
“Buf is a good player, but hopefully we don’t give him too many chances to load up like we did (in Game 1) and take that big shot.”
The Blackhawks gave Byfuglien a shot to play in the NHL, taking a flyer on the Minnesota native in the eighth round with the No. 245 pick overall in 2003. He played his first full season in the league five years later and had 11 goals and five assists for Chicago during the 2010 playoffs.
Byfuglien didn’t get to celebrate the championship for very long because the Blackhawks traded him to less than three weeks after hoisting the Cup. Chicago sent him to the Atlanta Thrashers, who became the Jets, to help manage its salary cap. He has become a three-time All-Star with the franchise and a player respected enough on the blue line to be in the running for the Norris Trophy six times.
Byfuglien, though, got off to a slow start offensively this season with a slump that seems improbable for a player with five goals in 13 playoff games this year. He began the season with a 29-game goal drought and finished with eight goals, his fewest in five seasons.
“He had a helluva year and it was masked by the fact that he didn’t score a goal for a long time and didn’t generate points,” Maurice said. “The question was ‘What’s wrong with Dustin Byfuglien?’ And the answer was, ‘Absolutely nothing,’ because our hockey team was winning and he was playing right.”
Byfuglien has been businesslike around reporters lately, appearing to be focused on his tasks instead of showing off tricks with a cosmetic tooth he can pop in and out of his mouth with his tongue. When a reporter asked about the Atlanta hat he wore in the dressing room before Game 1, wondering if it was a nod to his season with the Thrashers, he wasn’t in the mood to play along.
“The what?” he asked. “I don’t even know what hat I got on.”
Byfuglien also wasn’t interested in comparing the Jets’ run to his success with the Blackhawks.
“That was a while ago,” he said.
Discussing the challenges of facing Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also didn’t interest him.
“Get it behind him,” he said. “Shoot pucks and hopefully they go in.”
His first shot against Fleury found the back of the net, and the blast probably pushed the netting to its limit because it was so powerful.
“That first goal was a bomb,” Vegas defenceman Deryk Engelland said.