TAMPA, Fla. -- Say this about Dustin Byfuglien, the Winnipeg Jets' all-star defenceman and lightning rod:
The game-changing, difference-making man-mountain sure didn't gather a speck of rust during his 16 games in the infirmary.
Making his first appearance since a loss to Pittsburgh in Winnipeg just before Christmas, the 26-year-old logged 25 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time, clanged one off the crossbar in an end-to-end rush, gave the Jets a physical presence defensively and generally served up a solid performance that would cause little doubt about his level of conditioning.
In fact, it was Byfuglien who helped set up Kyle Wellwood's OT winner by trapping a Lightning defenceman.
And here are the early reviews:
"That's what he does for our team. We were smart in the sense that he wasn't going to come back until he could give us that. In my opinion he was outstanding. He was involved offensively the entire game, he made some really good plays defensively, too. We're a different team with him in the lineup." -- Blake Wheeler.
"I thought Buff was good. He made a good play at the end and he was a pretty effective player in the game. I mean, he made some good offensive plays and you could see he was on the ice creating stuff. He had good poise with the puck. He wasn't afraid to make plays. He wasn't afraid to go down and I thought he was effective. He was good. He was a factor in the game and he didn't hold back. He didn't play a quiet game and let the puck do the work. He was logging some minutes. I thought his conditioning was good and he held up real well." -- head coach Claude Noel.
None of this, of course, was the least bit surprising to the man himself.
Asked if he felt any rust in his first game back, Byfuglien said:
"No, not really," he said with a shrug. "I felt really good. It went pretty smooth and I feel great right now. It feels good to get right back on the sheet. I try to do as much as I can."
Now comes the real test -- the Jets flew immediately to Fort Lauderdale right after the game for today's game against the Florida Panthers. And while they won't skate at all today in advance of the game, Byfuglien's conditioning may be affected with contests on consecutive nights.
Or... maybe not.
When he was asked if he could serve up another 25:36 in ice time against the Panthers Friday, the big man grinned.
"Absolutely," he said. "The more ice I get, the more I'm in the game and the more you see it the more you can feel it better. That's one of my games... I love being involved and being up on the rush. Sometimes I maybe got down there a little bit much, but that's the game."
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