ST. LOUIS — Dustin Byfuglien is starting to make his presence felt in the Western Conference First Round, a good sign for the Winnipeg Jets heading into Game 4 against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVAS, FS-MW).
Winnipeg trails the best-of-7 series 2-1 after defeating St. Louis 6-3 in Game 3 on Sunday.
Byfuglien, who had a goal and an assist in the victory, leads all players in the series with five points (one goal, four assists) and 25:40 of ice time per game.
[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Blues series coverage]
But it’s his playoff experience that may be the biggest key for Winnipeg as it tries to even the series.
“As a group, we never felt down and out,” Byfuglien said. “I think it’s one of the big things here, believing in your group and everyone just knowing that hey, we’re still in this. There’s a lot of hockey left.”
The 34-year-old defenseman, who is playing in his fifth Stanley Cup Playoffs (third with Winnipeg), has 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 63 playoff games. He won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.
That experience, the most on the Jets, has helped Byfuglien understand that focusing on the moment at hand, not the bigger picture, is the most important approach in the postseason.
“You’ve just got to realize you can only do the one shift at a time, not worry about later in the game,” Byfuglien said. “You go one at a time and just do the simple things. It’s never going to be a pretty game in the playoffs. It’s going to be a grinder all the way through. It’s going to hurt. When you win, it hurts.”
Just ask the Blues.
Byfuglien, who began his NHL career as a forward, is third on the Jets with eight hits, adding physicality to his scoring touch.
“I think that’s huge,” Jets center Bryan Little said. “When he’s playing like he is, scoring and getting in their faces a bit and getting physical, I think he’s one of the most dangerous players on the ice and one of the biggest influencers in the game. He’s one of those guys that when he’s playing like that, you’re really glad he’s on your team.”
Byfuglien was limited to 42 games during the regular season, his fewest in a full season in the NHL, because of three separate injuries. The last of those, a lower-body injury, kept him out between Feb. 16-March 28 (19 games). Winnipeg went 9-9-1 in that span before he returned for the final five games of the regular season.
“He missed half a year and for a big man, sometimes it takes those guys a little while to get going,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “It doesn’t for him. He’s been able to come back off injuries and not look like he’s missed a beat.”
That was on display Sunday when Byfuglien stood near the crease early in the second period trying to redirect a shot from Jacob Trouba.
Blues goalie Jordan Binnington made the save and covered the puck, but after the play was whistled dead, Binnington wrapped his arms around Byfuglien’s leg. The ensuing scrum resulted in roughing penalties to Byfuglien and Blues forward Brayden Schenn at 7:18.
“It was a little bit of a mix up there,” Binnington said. “There was a little traffic in front. It happens, playoff hockey.”
Byfuglien said he was trying to use his big body to make life tough for the Blues goalie.
“No one really likes traffic,” he said. “Just get bodies and traffic in front of him and I think every goalie just hates that, so it’s about being around there. Why he grabbed on, I don’t know. But it was different. So it’s just little things, trying to get in his head maybe.”
Binnington’s head was the focus when Byfuglien scored his goal at 8:06 of the third period to extend the lead to 5-2.
Byfuglien skated around the Blues net and above the goal line before cutting back to elude defenseman Colton Parayko. From along the end boards, he fired a quick, high shot that struck Binnington on the side of the mask and deflected into the net.
“It was just the way he was leaning,” Byfuglien said. “If you look, he was off his post a little bit and you can kind of see the room. It’s one of those things that you try to do and hope it goes in.”
Plays like that have given the Jets confidence as they attempt to advance past the first round for the second straight season.
“He’s a special athlete, for sure,” Maurice said. “He’s an impact guy and he’s rare. To be that physical and that strong, and he’s offensively gifted, so when he’s going, you’ve got a much better chance of winning.”