Byfuglien an unexpected hero for Blackhawks

Every postseason is filled with unexpected heroes, players who
stepped up and took their game to the next level as their team
progressed in the playoffs. When teams don’t have those sorts of
players, then progressing in the postseason becomes increasingly
unlikely. More than any other sport, we learn just how much of a team
game hockey is once the postseason comes.

For the Chicago
Blackhawks, perhaps we can look at none other than Antti Nieimi as the
difference maker so far. Yet with a team leading four game-winning
goals, including three in the sweep against the Sharks, there’s no way
we can overlook just how important Dustin Byfuglien has become for the
Hawks.

We all know about his willingness and ability to move from
forward to defense and back again; it’s an unsung ability and role you
just don’t see very often in the NHL. Yet when Byfuglien was permanently
moved to the top line against the Canucks, that’s when he really
started to make a difference.

“I think it started in
the Vancouver series. All those fans were getting
on his case. He wasn’t popular in that building,” Blackhawks forward
Patrick Sharp said of the man known as “Big Buff.” “Seems like he likes
the spotlight. He likes being the hero. He steps up in big-time.”

Byfuglien
has eight goals in the postseason, including goals in five straight
games. His willingness and ability to crash the net, his agility in the
trenches despite his size, makes him one heck of a foe for opposing
defenses to try and clear out. Amazingly, the defenses have sometimes
completely forgotten about Byfuglien as he’s picked the perfect time to
come down low and pound home a goal.

He was instrumental in
frustrating the Canucks and was the backbreaker against the Sharks.
He’ll continue to have to be a difference maker in the Stanley Cup
finals, when every goal and every play becomes so incredibly important.

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    Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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    How in the world did he get up?

    Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

    Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

    The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

    Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

    Talk about hard-headed.

    Who could take Taylor Hall’s place if he has to miss the All-Star Game?

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    With Taylor Hall set to miss the next couple of games due to a hand injury, and with that injury putting his All-Star Game prospects in jeopardy, we look at the players who are worthy of replacing the New Jersey Devils forward if he has to miss this weekend’s festivities.

    Two names that immediately come to mind are Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel and Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier.

    There was already an argument that Kessel deserved to be at the ASG over Sidney Crosby. He was leading the Penguins in points then and two weeks later, he continues to pace Pittsburgh with 21 goals (tied with Evgeni Malkin) and 54 points, three more points than Crosby.

    Couturier has already smashed his previous career highs in both goals (26) and points (47). He’s been part of the reason that Claude Giroux is already headed to the ASG and deserves to be there himself.

    At third would have to be Sebastian Aho. The talent in the Metropolitan is evident with his snub. He’s clearly the best player on the Carolina Hurricanes this season (no disrespect to Teuvo Teravainen).

    Aho is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie-season totals and a big reason why the Hurricanes are three points back of a playoff spot.

    Beyond those three guys, there’s a few that certainly deserve the honor:

    • Anders Lee has 27 goals this season, seven off the pace he set last season with half the season to go.
    • Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 45 assists, four more than teammate Giroux.
    • Evgeni Malkin. Not having a bad year.

    It’s important to remember that the at-least-one-player-per-team rule goes out the window when it comes to replacing another All-Star.

    There are certainly some very deserving names that didn’t get the first call.

    But life’s about second chances.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    WATCH LIVE: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

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    Projected Lines

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

    Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

    Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

    Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

    Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

    Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

    Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

    Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

    NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

    Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

    Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

    Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

    Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

    Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

    Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

    Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

    Are Penguins making the right call with Sprong demotion?

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    After being a healthy scratch for two games and seemingly being in the doghouse since at least Jan. 17, Daniel Sprong is headed back to the AHL.

    To some degree, the move was made because it seems like Bryan Rust is getting ready to return to the mix after being sidelined since Dec. 27. Still, it’s a frustrating development for those who believe in Sprong’s potential as the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

    All of the 20-year-old’s points came in one game, as Sprong scored two goals and one assist against the Islanders on Jan. 5. He went without a point in his other seven appearances in the NHL this season, with six coming during his latest stint.

    Sprong was in the double digits in ice time each night until the Penguins’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 17, when he was glued to the bench from the second period on. Considering his lack of production in general, it’s understandable that head coach Mike Sullivan is more reactive to mistakes.

    Certain details make the move more debatable, though.

    For those who believe that Ryan Reaves‘ role is antiquated, it must be frustrating to see Sprong get demoted. Reaves has been averaging less than seven minutes per game (6:41) despite taking a spot in the lineup for 49 contests. Pittsburgh is in a life-or-death battle for a playoff spot, and many believe that his presence (and the first rounder they gave up to acquire him) is a waste for the Penguins.

    The Pens also seem like they’re taking a questionable all-or-nothing approach with Sprong.

    Sprong’s most common even-strength linemates (by far) were Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon, via Natural Stat Trick. Maybe Sprong isn’t quite the right fit for Crosby at this point in his career, but there has to be at least a chance that he could provide more punch for the Penguins’ lineup than someone like Reaves lower in the lineup?

    His possession stats have been solid in a small sample size and he hasn’t been shy, firing just less than three shots on goal per game (22 SOG in eight games). Couldn’t the Penguins find room for Rust and Sprong?

    These are questions at least some Penguins media members and fans are asking right now, but the bottom line is that the team clearly believes that Reaves is a difference-maker. If Sprong is going to rank as one as well, it sounds like he’ll need to earn his next chance first.

    We’ll see how the Sprong-less Penguins fare against the Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty important game on Tuesday. In other Penguins news, Matt Murray was overwhelmed by the support he received from his team and teammates following his father’s death.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.