Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flintstone pots OT winner

Big, powerful Byfuglien like Fred in a bowling alley

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SUNRISE, Fla. -- Dustin Byfuglien is learning to pick his spots a little better and the less-is- more approach is making the Winnipeg Jets a better team.

Byfuglien kept himself in check for 60 minutes on Friday night, focusing on his defensive responsibilities before finally spitting the bit and going for a gallop in overtime.

The monstrous defender with uncanny speed and the hands of a watchmaker shrugged off the entire group of Florida Panthers on the ice circling around the zone until he could find a lane to penetrate. Once he saw his opening, he switched from thug to cat burglar and finessed his way into the slot before zipping a shot past goalie Jacob Markstrom at 4:19 of overtime for a 3-2 Jets win.

Byfuglien conjures up the image of Fred Flintstone bowling. A powerful ballerina. He can tiptoe and he can explode. His teammates even find themselves watching.

"Buff can take over a game and change the momentum with just one play. Overtime is his time to shine. He just takes over, he's so big and strong and he can be unstoppable," said teammate Mark Stuart.

The Jets were ordinary for most of this game and if not for the play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec and Byfuglien's overtime heroics this could easily have been a loss.

Instead the Jets find themselves at 12-11-1 for 25 points, just one back of the New York Rangers, who occupy the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.

The Jets are 2-1 on this road swing and now head north to New Jersey for the finale on Sunday against the Devils.

Pavelec approached Byfuglien in the dressing room after the game with a smile on his face. "I told you. I told you," said Pavelec.

When asked what he was talking about, Pavelec was happy to divulge.

"I told him before overtime started to just go for it. And he did. He did exactly what I told him. He can do whatever he wants out there," said Pavelec. "It's a big goal for us."

Byfuglien admitted to worrying a little less about his defensive role in overtime.

"I guess I have to say I do give myself a bit of a green light when it's four-on-four. It gives a D-man a little more room to go down and roam a bit," said Byfuglien.

Jets coach Claude Noel has been working with Byfuglien to think defence first and limit his rushes. Byfuglien has the ability to work his way up ice, but in the NHL individual effort rarely wins the day. Instead of taking off whenever he sees an opening, Noel and assistant coach Charlie Huddy have preached at Byfuglien to be more judicious.

The result is the defender is better in his own end, reserves his energy and has an element of surprise when he does take off.

"He has that ability and you could tell on the bench he was pretty fired up the last 10 minutes to get this back on track. Those guys are hard to find," said Noel. "He makes a toe drag in the slot, holds on, holds on and then it's in the net. It's what he can do. He has that ability, which is great."

Noel doesn't want to cut Byfuglien off from the offensive part of his game.

"You have to give him the green light in those situations. When it's four-on-four and there's all that open ice he wants to be a difference-maker and he can be. That's what he does. I certainly wouldn't hold him back and neither would his teammates."

Byfuglien is beloved in the dressing room by his teammates and although he can be shy at times, word is he can also be vocal about his displeasure at times.

Friday night he led when the Jets needed him to. More of the same can only be good for this team and this franchise. Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 C1


Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 10:16 AM CST: replaces photo

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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