ST. PAUL, MN – The close-up of Dustin Byfuglien’s face splashes on the Winnipeg Jumbotron, and the home crowd erupts into a second round of raucous cheers. Most stand up.
Byfuglien, sweaty and serious, glances up to see his own face a billion pixels large, hears the 112 decibels of love and doesn’t so much as smirk.
The first roar occurred just moments prior, when he detonated Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu with a shoulder as legal as it is lethal.
“It makes me smile, I guess,” Byfuglien forces. Except he’s not smiling when he talks about the hit, and he wasn’t smiling during either. “I just enjoy playing the game. It doesn’t really do much for me.”
Maybe. But it does the world for his teammates, his fans, his coach, and – most critically – the helpless little green men in his crosshairs.
Byfuglien’s unflinching expression — business in the front, target on your back — is the cold face of this series. He hasn’t scored, but on Friday the 13th his game-high eight hits, game-high three blocked shots and slick setup of Paul Stastny’s game-winner were enough to earn him First Star of the Game honours. Name another player who can take 12 minutes in penalties and still be the best guy on the ice.
“He’s a nightmare to play against,” says Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “He can be as dominant a player in the game as there is. He can control games with his size [6-foot-5, 260 pounds], and he feels the game incredibly well, too. He’s a really unique guy.
“Going into the corners with him, he’s so solid, he’s tough to get a piece of, and when he decides to lay into somebody, it’s not a whole lotta fun. He’s a guy who can really turn the tides out there just with his sheer presence.”
Jets coach Paul Maurice tells a story from when he served as an assistant for Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup. His club was set to open the tournament against Team USA when American coach John Tortorella (rather controversially) opted to make Byfuglien a healthy scratch. Seven different European skaters blurted, “Thank God.” Guys like Tomas Tatar, they all began recounting the time they’d been Buff’d.
“And they were so pleased he wasn’t in the lineup,” Maurice says.
“Very clean hits. I think you need to know, he pulls off on just about every single hit. Because he’s had a couple where he hit somebody — it might have been [Jay] Bouwmeester in St. Louis a couple years ago — where the feedback was it’s a clean hit but there’s gotta be a penalty there, it was so violent. He’s such a big, powerful guy. He pulls on almost every one of his hits. But it is — it’s not a pun — impactful on the game. He can change the way you think.”
Just as Koivu, a 13-year vet, walked blindly on the freight train’s tracks (“You have to pay the price. You have to be ready,” Koivu lamented), so too did Joel Eriksson Ek in Game 1.
“I couldn’t really see him coming. It was probably the biggest problem for me,” says Eriksson Ek, who temporarily went to the dressing room, but did not undergo concussion protocol.
We may discover one day that Dustin Byfuglien’s shoulder is responsible for more unreported concussions than Jofa.
Thing is, no one in Minnesota is questioning the validity of Byfuglien’s violence. “If I get a chance like that I’ll probably finish too,” says Wild defenceman Mathew Dumba.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has been watching Buff since Norfolk, before the big huntin’ and fishin’ eighth-rounder from Minnesota had made the league — and he still can’t solve the guy.
“He’s all over the place,” Boudreau says. “You have to just be aware of where he is, quite frankly. He can be behind the net. He can stay out for two minutes. He’s so physically imposing that we have to know where he is.”
When you don’t know where he is, things like the explosion of Mark Stone happen. “Ottawa. Stone. That was the biggest hit I’ve ever seen live in a hockey game. Unbelievable.”
He’s a rover, a wild card with a clapper that makes you duck or wince or cry. He’s kinda like Brent Burns minus the public joy, but not quite. Wheeler insists there’s no comparison on earth.
Byfuglien has a green light to wander. So when he makes a seemingly bad pinch, like the one that led to Zach Parise’s two-on-one goal in Game 1, Maurice notes that “there’s a forward element to that too.”
Read: The other Jets have to adjust to Byfuglien, because he ain’t changing a thing.
Byfuglien’s current partner, Game 1 hero Joe Morrow, says the best thing that could’ve happened to him once getting dealt to Winnipeg at the deadline was finding his locker beside Buff’s. He learned Byfuglien the man, how he thinks and operates, how he’ll roll down low and try to create offence.
“Unorthodox,” says Morrow. “If I have to stray from my game a little bit to make us both successful, that’s what you have to do.”
The last time Byfuglien was part of a team that actually won a playoff game, his Chicago Blackhawks won 16 of them. The 2010 Cup champions promptly traded him due to cap constraints. That was eight years and a thousand gifs ago.
“It doesn’t come around very often. So enjoy it,” Byfuglien says. “While you’re here you might as well give it all you’ve got. You never know what could happen.”
A reluctant quote, Buff’s impact on Jets culture — soggy tracksuit, anyone? — speaks volumes. During warm-ups Friday, rookie Jack Roslovic was nervously taking laps when Buff, 33, playfully checked his 21-year-old teammate into the glass. Both laughed. Jitters gone, Roslovic set up two goals.
But it’s the Eriksson Ek and Koivu hits that reverberated throughout the bench, filling our notebook the way Buff fills the Wild’s ice baths.
Bryan Little: “He’s had a couple hits that have almost seemed to single-handedly change the game. It seems every time he steps up on a guy, it’s like the guy is running into a wall…. It’s that intimidation factor…. When he’s got your back in scrums or whatever, you know he’s probably got two guys in a headlock.”
Patrik Laine: “He’s just throwing his body all around the ice and it just gives us so much energy.”
Nikolaj Ehlers: “It gets everybody in the room fired up. One hundred per cent. A big hit like that gets the fans going, gets us going. It gets me going.”
Paul Maurice: “When you cross over the 30-mark, you know there is going to be an end in sight. Anybody who has been in the league for a long time, the change in routine… the playoffs are a lot more fun. A guy who loves the game loves coming to the rink. This is a great time of year for him.”
Dustin Byfuglien: “Just another day at the office.”