Byfuglien comes up big

Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov congratulates teammate Dustin Byfuglien for his goal against the...

Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov congratulates teammate Dustin Byfuglien for his goal against the Capitals at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Man., March 16, 2012. (MARIANNE HELM/Getty Images/AFP)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:56 AM ET

WINNIPEG - He rushed the puck with his usual reckless abandon, shook off a leg injury to help shut down Alex Ovechkin and even scored the third-period winner.

Not a bad Friday night at the downtown rink for Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.

That it came in a must-win for the Jets to have a realistic shot at the post-season brought to mind that worn-out cliche about big players coming up big in the biggest games.

Hyperbole be damned — this was the Jets biggest game of the season. But only if it was a loss. Had the Washington Capitals got two clean points, the Jets would have been done like last night’s dinner.

“Driving to the rink it felt like a playoff game,” forward Blake Wheeler said. “Seventy-one degrees, lots of sunshine, people wearing Jets jerseys. There’s nothing better than coming to the rink with your shades on and the sunroof down.”

And nothing like the coolest defenceman on the team laying it on the blue line, in a 3-2 Jets victory.

It was vintage Byfuglien who showed up for this one.

And vintage Byfuglien who came out for the first-star award, played to the crowd with a few bows, then disappeared, leaving the media to go elsewhere for the quote.

“You guys saw a couple years ago Buff was a different player when the playoffs started,” Wheeler said, referencing Byfuglien’s Cup-winning run with Chicago. “Somehow he finds an extra gear. When the chips are down, you want guys like No. 33 on your team.”

Matched up against Ovechkin much of the time, Byfuglien was at his puck-carrying, hard-passing best, despite resting a suspected sore knee during the morning skate, something he’s likely to do a lot down the stretch.

In fact, late in the third it appeared he’d tweaked it, as he limped to the bench after awkwardly avoiding a hit.

By then, though, he’d made his mark, assisting on the Jets first goal and scoring the winner midway through the third period.

“I saw a few of them during our Cup run,” former Blackhawks teammate Andrew Ladd said. “When he’s playing his best he’s shooting from everywhere.”

This one saw the big man jamming the Caps net in front of Tomas Vokoun, a bit like the way he rattled Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo in helping Chicago win it all.

The knee held together enough for Byfuglien to be on the back end for the last nail-biting shift, as the Jets held off a Caps power play with the biggest penalty kill they’ve made this year (there’s that hyperbole again).

With the two points in the bag, though, the focus shifts to the next one.

Because all this did was ensure there will be one with even more on the line, down the line. It prolongs the status-quo. Now, all objects in the front view are larger than they would normally appear.

Beginning Sunday at home against Carolina, and certainly continuing on the road next week in Washington and, to only a slightly lesser degree, Pittsburgh and Nashville.

But those wouldn’t have mattered if this one had seen the Jets implode, or even come up a sliver short.

Their mettle was tested, more than once, particularly when the Caps erased Winnipeg’s 2-1 lead 27 seconds into the third.

Only there was no panic, just a continuation of the stingy style that saw the Jets hold Washington to 22 shots.

“It’s almost better it happened that way,” Wheeler said. “If they tie it with a minute left, it’s probably tougher to come back and win it in the last minute.”

Interesting take, for a team that hasn’t played a game of this magnitude before.

“Everyone was pedal to the metal,” Wheeler said. “That was how playoff games are played.”

Foot on the gas, sunroof down and shades on.

A guy could get used to this.


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