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Byfuglien’s dominant Game 3 shows why he’s ‘the great equalizer’ for the Jets

Dustin Byfuglien helped spark and spur on one of the most impressive comebacks of the post-season Wednesday by making an impact all over the scoresheet in Winnipeg’s 7-4 victory over Nashville in Game 3.

Winnipeggers waking up Wednesday might very well find the city engulfed in a new dance craze. No, we’re not talking about the Fortnite jigs that have stemmed from the eponymous video game. We’re speaking instead about what we’ll affectionately refer to as the ‘Buffle Shuffle.’

The name, of course, is in reference to the dance’s creator, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who broke out the jubilant celebration following what was at the time a second period go-ahead goal in one of the most unlikely comebacks the NHL has seen this post-season. “I don’t know where some of this stuff comes from,” Byfuglien laughed post-game.

Following an uninspired opening 20 minutes that saw the Jets trailing 3-0 — and it could have been 4-0 if not for the skinny red friend Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck calls his right goalpost — Winnipeg went on the offensive in the second frame. 

They struck first when Paul Stastny got a shin on a shot from the back end, and then sent the Bell MTS Place crowd into an absolute frenzy with two goals in 18 seconds, both coming at 4-on-4 following a scuffle between the Jets’ Mark Scheifele and Nashville Predators’ Austin Watson. It was a Byfuglien bomb that brought Winnipeg within one, and Jacob Trouba who tied the game before the prior tally had even been announced. That set the stage for Byfuglien’s second of the game — another laser, this one a one-timer off of a picture-perfect cross-ice feed from Patrik Laine — and the ‘Big Buff’ boogie that followed. “It’s nice to see him get a little excited,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler quipped of Byfuglien’s moves. “Tough to get him to smile.”

Undoubtedly, Byfuglien’s celebration will be the lasting image of the Jets’ 7-4 Game 3 victory, a piece of footage readymade for a career retrospective whenever his time in Manitoba’s capital comes to an end, but his stat line speaks more to his impact on Winnipeg’s come-from-behind win than any shimmy or shake could ever dream. Byfuglien finished the contest with two goals, three points, four shots on goal, three hits and two blocks. “He’s the great equalizer,” Wheeler said. “There’s nobody like him. Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play. That’s the type of player he is. From Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”

What’s funny, though, is that Byfuglien’s tidy 27 minutes of work on the evening, including roughly five minutes on the power play and more than 1:30 on the penalty kill, somehow feels as though it was miscalculated. Not because it’s just slightly higher than his post-season average, mind you, but because you had the feeling watching Game 3 as though the Jets’ 6-foot-5, 260-pound powerhouse rarely left the ice, as if he was somehow omnipresent. 

At even strength, he skated and shut down the Predators’ top players, controlling play and tilting the ice heavily in Winnipeg’s favor. The Jets had nearly 66 percent of the shot attempts at evens when Byfuglien was on the ice. And where it counts most, on the scoreboard, Winnipeg was 3-0 when big No. 33 was on the ice at even strength and outscored Nashville 4-1 on the night with Byfuglien over the boards at all strengths. “What makes him unique is that he can, I don’t know if take over are the right words, but he can make an impact in the game in just about every single way that’s possible other than playing goal,” said Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice. “He can defend, he can be real physical, nobody wants to drop the gloves with him. And then there’s an offensive side that’s a perfectly placed shot, quick hands, all the other things that he can do offensively.”

That he’s come to play in the post-season and made this great an impact at this time of year certainly brings back some memories, too. Byfuglien was part of the beginning of the somewhat dynastic era in Chicago, a fixture as a top-six forward on the 2009-10 Blackhawks that won the Stanley Cup. Byfuglien contributed 11 goals and 16 points in 22 games that spring, not to mention five game-winning goals. This, however, marks Byfuglien’s first return to the second round of the post-season. “Anytime you get in the playoffs, you can look back at what you’ve done and what you’ve gone through,” Byfuglien said.

To hear Maurice tell it, however, a game like this was seemingly inevitable for Byfuglien, post-season or otherwise. “The goals now will draw the camera to him, but he went a long stretch in the first half of the year where he was really, really good,” Maurice said. “He wasn’t scoring and there were questions about the quality of his play, but it was right and he’s built his game this year. And now, for me, he’s got both sides of it. He’s got the right reads, the real good defensive play, but now you’re also seeing a guy who loves the more energy, the more excitement there is in a game. It’s not that he’s not interested, but he can take his game to another level.”

And given the way he played in Game 3, Byfuglien taking his game to that level is a frightening thought for the Predators, who now trail the second round series 2-1, or whoever may come next should the Jets advance to the Western Conference final and beyond.

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