Make no mistake: Dustin Byfuglien still creates most of his highlights in black and blue. In Winnipeg’s first-round playoff series against the Wild, the Jets behemoth has made his biggest impression with his monstrous, memorable hits, a trend he continued by flattening Wild forward Nino Niederreiter on the first shift of Sunday’s Game 3.
His teammates and coaches, though, notice so much more than that. The defenseman from Roseau has mastered the subtleties of his position, making his presence felt all over the ice. His intelligent, poised and tactical play has led to major minutes in the series and contributions throughout the stat sheet — an all-around effort that will be vital to the Jets as they try to regroup after a 6-2 loss at Xcel Energy Center.
In Game 3, Byfuglien recorded his third assist of the series, setting up Blake Wheeler for the game’s first goal. He led all players with 26 minutes on the ice, filled key roles on special teams, had four shots on goal and used his muscle judiciously while dishing out a game-high five hits.
“I think he’s played like our hockey team in being a leader,’’ Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s been physical, but selectively. He’s moved the puck well, picked his spots really good, controlled the blue line and was heavy when he needed to be.’’
Though Maurice doesn’t view this series as any more physical than any other, he’s glad to have its most punishing player on his side. The 6-5, 260-pound Byfuglien has been methodical in his menace, delivering bruising but legal hits. That discipline is critical in the playoffs, when the heavy hitting ramps up — but so does the importance of staying out of the penalty box.
In Game 2, Byfuglien clobbered Mikko Koivu behind the Winnipeg net as Koivu was looking down to corral the puck. In Game 1, he knocked Joel Eriksson Ek upside down, sending him briefly to the locker room. Both Wild players noted the hits were clean.
“He’s so big,’’ Jets defenseman Tyler Myers said. “When he’s throwing hits like that, it changes the game. You can see how aware players on the other team become when he’s on the ice.’’
Byfuglien said he doesn’t get as excited about his hits as Jets fans do. He called Game 2 “just another day at the office,’’ though he had an assist, eight hits, three shots on goal and three blocked shots.
Winnipeg center Paul Stastny praised Byfuglien for his poise and his savvy. On breakouts, Byfuglien keeps teams guessing by varying his strategy, using that large frame to protect the puck while making reads that force opponents to adjust. On defense, he augments his size with sound positioning, and he can steal a puck with his long reach as well as by force.
The Jets were not able to physically dominate Game 3 as they did the first two games in Winnipeg, opening things up for the Wild. That’s something Byfuglien could remedy in Tuesday’s Game 4.
“When he decides to lay into somebody, it’s not a whole lot of fun,’’ Wheeler said. “He’s a guy who can really turn the tide out there just with his sheer presence.’’