There’s a new king of the crease, but the heavyweight belt might need to be resized before being passed on.
Longtime Detroit Red Wing Tomas Holmstrom has made a career of scoring big goals at this time of year from the lip of the blue ice, but right now, no net presence is the equal of that provided by Chicago Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien.
We saw it again during the Hawks’ 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks, which provided the Windy City boys with a 2-0 series lead in the West final after two games in California.
Byfuglien may be the first guy in the history of the league who weighs 260 pounds, but plays much bigger. In a 90-second span early in the second period, Byfuglien had a huge hand in Chicago going from a team holding a tenuous 1-0 lead, to a club cruising to a seventh straight road win thanks to a three-goal advantage.
He was parked directly in front of Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov when he tipped home a shot by Patrick Kane for Chicago’s second goal and was in the exact same spot a minute-and-a-half later, only this time he was joined in distracting Nabokov by Jonathan Toews, who got his stick on a Duncan Keith shot to make it 3-0.
Byfuglien now has six goals in his past six games, including the Game 1 winner.
Presumably, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has told ‘Big Buff’ the same thing former Wings coach Scotty Bowman – now a Hawks executive – used to tell Holmstrom, which is some variation on, “If I see you any place besides the corner digging out a puck or in front of the net tipping one, you’re in trouble.”
The really good news for Chicago right now is Nabokov isn’t doing nearly enough to fight through the screens Byfuglien and the rest of his on-a-mission teammates are providing.
Realistically, if the Sharks had a more viable option than backup Thomas Greiss, you’d have to think Nabokov would be watching Game 3 from the bench. If Greiss got the call, it would be the first playoff action of his NHL career and the 24-year-old has just 19 total regular season games under his belt.
Is Nabokov the reason San Jose is down 0-2? Nope. But he sure isn’t doing them anything in the way of favors. At this point I’d say the odds he’s going to come up with the big saves San Jose needs are the same as Byfuglien showing up to Game 3 wearing one of Kane’s suits.
If there’s a silver lining for San Jose it’s that Chicago is just 3-3 at home this playoff season and the fact the Sharks’ most talented player is also their most determined. Joe Thornton used his hands and heft in Game 2, making a beautiful pass on the second-period power play goal that gave San Jose some life and he also played with the physical enthusiasm often lacking in his game this time of year.
His (second) slash on Dave Bolland prior to a third-period faceoff didn’t do his team much good, but my guess is Sharks coach Todd McLellan won’t do anything to try and deter the emotion in Thornton that led to that particular action.
The whack on Bolland was likely borne of the fact he did a spectacular job checking the top line of San Jose all night.
And when you consider Toews is leading the playoffs in scoring by doing greasy things like driving hard to the net, you’re left with the simple fact Chicago has both the best star and support players in the post-season right now.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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