If you were unsure of just how important Dustin Byfuglien is to the fortunes of the Winnipeg Jets, last night should have opened your eyes.
Playing in his first game since December 23, the big defenceman’s presence was ever apparent as he helped Winnipeg to a 2-1 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Certainly not easing his way back into the lineup, Byfuglien led all Jets skaters with 25:36 minutes of ice time and seemingly took no time at all at getting back into the swing of things. “I felt real good, a lot better than I thought I would,” Byfuglien told reporterts after the game. “It didn’t take too long to get right in the mix of things and get the timing down.”
Although far from at his regular game speed, Byfuglien showed almost no rust whatsoever in terms of his passing and play with the puck. His hands were strong and his passes were crisp and on the money. He demonstrated this no more than on Kyle Wellwood’s game winner in overtime when he sent a beautiful cross-ice pass to Blake Wheeler; catching the forward in stride. Wheeler then went in on a two-on-one and slid a pass over to the awaiting Wellwood who had nearly the entire net to shoot at.
His ability to make passes like the one he made to Wheeler and the way he effortlessly logs a ton of minutes is obviously a big boost to the Jets playoff push. I say effortlessly in that, even though it looks like he is skating in quicksand at times, Byfuglien is still able to do things that few other blueliners can do. His strength in his physical stature and with his stick and hands gives him a huge advantage despite a lack of quickness; something teammate Blake Wheeler echoed after the game. “In my opinion he was outstanding. He was involved offensively the entire game. He made some really good plays defensively too. We’re a different team with him in the lineup.”
Although his return didn’t exactly spark the club to a whack of goals against the Lightning, the signs of doing so were indeed there. The team will try and continue along with a very defensive approach to their road games, but with Byfuglien back in the mix, the offense that was missing when he was absent is a very welcomed addition.
The Jets will be in Sunrise tonight where they will play perhaps their most imporant game of the season to date against the Florida Panthers.
Although they are currently in 10th place in the East, Winnipeg is just three points back of the Southeast leading Panthers, meaning a win in regulation would put them a single point from climbing to third in the conference.