Monday January 12th, 2015

Off The Draw

Sure “Big Buff” is cute and all, but now that he’s an All-Star maybe it’s time to update Dustin Byfuglien’s nickname.

How's “Beast Mode” sound?

Since moving back to the blue line, the hulking Jets star has reestablished himself as the NHL’s most physically dominating player, a 6' 5", 260-pound fullback-on-skates who can weaken the resolve of brave men and make opponents look to the bench for a line change whenever he hops over the boards.

He’s the game’s alpha dog, and over the weekend he reminded us why his every shift is a test of courage for rival players.

On Saturday in Los Angeles, he flattened two Kings in one epic sequence. Drew Doughty was his first victim, with Byfuglien sizing up and slamming the L.A. defenseman to the ice after he foolishly tried to carry the puck deep into the Winnipeg zone. An instant later, Byfuglien sent Anze Kopitar crashing into the boards as the two battled for a loose puck. Byfuglien was penalized for the second hit, but the message he had sent was clear: Venture into his corner at your own risk.


Against the Ducks on Sunday, Byfuglien delivered two more bone-crushing checks. Late in the second period, Francois Beauchemin beat him to a loose puck by a fraction of an instant. Beauchemin was able to chip it out of the Anaheim zone, but he paid a heavy toll.

Then in the dying moments of the third period, Byfuglien absolutely flattened Corey Perry, who comically tried to jump out of his own skin at the last second when he saw Byfuglien steaming toward him at center ice.

As devastating as the two hits were, they were also by the book. And both led to Jets power plays after the Ducks tried to retaliate. Watching Ryan Getzlaf step up in the wake of the Beachemin hit, dropping his gloves with all the resignation of Gord Ogilvey taking on Ross “The Boss” Rhea in Goon—and pulling the chute almost as quickly—pretty much summed up the problem that opponents have with Byfuglien. You gotta do something ... but what are you gonna do?

That’s been the dilemma since Byfuglien moved back to the blue line about six weeks ago. He’s been more than a physical presence since then. He’s revitalized Winnipeg’s injury-ravaged defense with smart puck movement, effective special teams work and timely offensive help.

“He’s a player who wants to play defense and he’s done what was asked of him,’ Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s a very smart guy. He knew what we were talking about when we asked him to fit in to what we were trying to do. He’s picking spots and using offensive gifts that he clearly has at the right times.”

Though Winnipeg dropped Sunday’s game against Anaheim in a shootout, the Jets picked up three points over the weekend, serving notice that the rest of the West better keep their heads up.

What to watch tonight

Avalanche at Capitals (7 p.m. EST; ALT, CSN-DC)

Play our new daily fantasy hockey game!

Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov taking on his former team is good. Two of the NHL’s hottest teams locking horns? Even better. It may be too late for the Avalanche to salvage their season, but they are showing signs of life, with five wins in their last six games and a 9-3-2 mark in their last 14. Varlamov has been brilliant, stopping 117 of 122 shots in his past three starts (a .959 save percentage), including 37 saves in a 4–3 win over the Stars on Saturday that raised Colorado to within four points of the eighth-place Kings. The Avs still give up too many shots, but when their keeper is playing like Varlamov has been, they can be tough to beat.

Washington, meanwhile, has lost just once in regulation since Dec. 4 (12-1-4) and has crept within five points of the Islanders in the race for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals, too, are giving up too many shots, but the steady play of Braden Holtby (15 saves in the third period to preserve a 3–1 win over the Red Wings on Saturday) and a balanced offense is keeping Washington in the black.

Rest of the schedule: Lightning at Flyers (7 p.m. EST; NHLN-US, SN, SUN, CSN-PH); Maple Leafs at Kings (10:30 p.m. EST; SNO, FS-W)

What you missed over the weekend

• The Ducks raised Teemu Selanne’s jersey to the rafters, making him the first player in franchise history to have his number retired.

• The NHL released its remaining All-Star selections along with some rather questionable jerseys for the game on Jan. 25.

• Gordie Howe’s remarkable comeback from multiple strokes continues.

• The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were honored by the Canadiens on Saturday night.

The numbers game

• Anaheim has set an NHL record with 11 consecutive home wins by a one-goal margin (five in regulation, two in OT, four in shootouts). The Ducks’ 21-0-6 mark in one-goal games is the best in the league, and they are now 62-6-20 in one-goal games since the start of the 2012–13 season.

• Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa’s 473rd career goal, scored on Sunday against the Wild, moved him into a tie for 50th on the NHL’s alltime list with Alexander Mogilny and Denis Savard.

• The Panthers (20-11-9), who are one point out of a wild-card playoff spot in the East, are off to their best 40-game start since 1999–2000.

Hot links

• The race for the Hart Trophy is heating up. Larry Brooks argues that Rick Nash belongs in the conversation, while Dejan Kovacevic makes the case for Evgeni Malkin.

• It was the question that everyone was asking on Sunday night at the jersey retirement ceremony for Teemu Selanne: “Where is Paul Kariya?"

• In case your Swedish is a bit rusty, this tweet reveals that Toronto has recalled top prospect William Nylander from MoDo of the Swedish league. Don't expect to see him at the Air Canada Centre, though. He’s expected to be assigned to the AHL Marlies, with whom he will work on correcting the perimeter style of play that made him largely ineffective at the World Junior Championship.

Flames coach Bob Hartley says that this is the reason fighters are being purged from the game.

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