CHICAGO – At six foot four, 257 pounds, Dustin Byfuglien is hard to miss on a hockey rink and he is preparing to be right in Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo’s face when the Chicago Blackhawks and Canucks begin their Western Conference semifinal series later this week.
The Blackhawks switched Byfuglien from defenceman back to wing in practice on Wednesday?a move they hope will allow him to get in the crease and make things uncomfortable for Luongo.
Byfuglien went to the blue-line in mid-March when the Hawks’ defence was beset by injuries to players like Brian Campbell and, for a short time, Brent Seabrook.
But his presence around the goal was a key for the Blackhawks a year ago when they beat the Canucks in six games. So they’re moving him again.
The linebacker-like Byfuglien did more than crowd the area around the net and restrict the talented Vancouver’s goalie’s view of the puck last year. He also did some talking.
“We’ll see as the series goes along. If he’s in front, that’s totally fine,” Luongo said this week after a Canucks practice when asked about Byfuglien. “I had two guys in front of me the hole series against LA, so he does his job and I’ll do mine to find the puck and make the saves.”
The Byfuglien-Luongo battle near the net is just one story line of what has become a top rivalry between two teams who don’t like each other much.
The teams got into a brawl during the regular season last year and in one of the fights, Vancouver’s Alex Burrows was seen grabbing the hair of Chicago’s Duncan Keith. Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler called Chicago’s Andrew Ladd “a coward” for a hit last year in the playoffs. His comments came after the two fought earlier this season.
And in October, Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell flattened Jonathan Toews with a hit that knocked the Chicago captain out for six games with a concussion.
Spicing up the series even more was Luongo telling Patrick Kane in the handshake line after backstopping Canada to the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver that he’d see Kane in the playoffs.
And now he’ll also see Byfuglien.
“He caused a lot of havoc and I know he and Luongo got into some pushing matches,” Kane said of last year’s playoffs. “It’s good to have him back in front.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said returning Byfuglien to wing is based on the success he had last year. The Hawks’ defence is also more sound after Campbell returned for the final three games of an opening-round win against Nashville.
Byfuglien had three goals and six assists in 17 playoff games a year ago but it was what Quenneville likes to call his “net presence” that made the biggest difference.
“I just think at this time of the year he (Byfuglien) can be such a factor and going back to last year he was,” Quenneville said.
Kane, who had a hat trick against Luongo in Chicago’s clinching Game 6 win in last year’s playoffs, said the goalie’s brief comment in the Olympic reception line wasn’t that big of a deal.
“Jokingly, with a smile on his face,” Kane recalled. “That is the first time, to be honest with you, I ever really talked to him.”
Asked the best way to get into Luongo’s head, Kane said:
“Obviously the biggest thing would be to score on him. To be honest with you, every goalie in the league you pretty much got to play the same way. They’re going to stop a lot of shots. You got to get traffic and try to get rebounds.”
And Luongo is ready for whatever or whomever in his way.
“It’s part of every team in every series. That’s what they try to do, get traffic in front of the net and try to get the goalie off his game,” he said. “That’s part of hockey right now and I’ve had a lot of it in the first series and I was able to deal with it, so I’m sure it will be the same.”