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Byfuglien continues to be key difference maker for Jets

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Dustin Byfuglien busted out his dance moves for a little celebration of his latest big goal, which may have caught many people by surprise.

Not his teammates.

“He’s so loose before games,” Winnipeg center Bryan Little said. “He’s a joker, definitely the prankster on the team. It’s strange for me to see him talking to you guys in front of the camera. It’s like, ‘That’s not who I know.”‘

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Byfuglien is making a big impression on the NHL playoffs on both ends of the ice as the Jets have muscled their way to within one win of Winnipeg’s first berth in the Western Conference Final. Timely goals, rugged defense, leadership – it’s all part of his game. He dropped jaws during the second-round series against the Predators by literally manhandling two Nashville players, one in each hand.

His journey back to the postseason has been a long one, but the 33-year-old Byfuglien has made Winnipeg his home and is a key reason the Jets are Canada’s last surviving team this postseason. The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993, and the 25-year drought is a painful one in the home of hockey.

Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler considers Byfuglien a “great equalizer” and unlike anybody else in the NHL.

“Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play,” Wheeler said. “That’s the type of player he is and from Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”

Byfuglien is making the most of his deepest postseason run since helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010,

Not only has he been a strong counter to Nashville by outplaying a group often considered the NHL’s best top four defensemen, Byfuglien is leading all defensemen this postseason with four goals. He’s also tied with Boston’s Torey Krug for most points with 12 while skating an average of 26 minutes, 25 seconds a game.

Byfuglien started the Jets’ rally in Game 3 against Nashville from a 3-0 deficit by scoring the first goal and his tying goal prompted his little dance. He wound up with the game-winning goal in Winnipeg’s 6-2 victory Saturday night that put the Jets on the verge of clinching only their second series – all this postseason.

“What makes him unique is he can, I don’t know if ‘take over’ is right, but he can make an impact in a game in just about every single way possible,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “He can defend, he can play real physical, nobody wants to drop the gloves with him, and then there’s an offensive side, it’s a perfectly placed shot, quick hands, all the other things that he can do offensively.”

And Chicago gave all that potential up in 2010. Byfuglien switched from defense to forward for the Blackhawks and scored three game-winning goals in a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1992. He had a hat trick against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.

But the Blackhawks were strapped for salary cap space after contract extensions for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on top of pricey deals for Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. Byfuglien was traded away to the then-Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

“There’s only one Dustin Byfuglien, and you want him on your team,” Little said. “You can’t imagine what it would be like playing against him. There’s only one of him. You can’t really compare him to anyone out there.”

Winnipeg has become home to Byfuglien. The town is just 115 miles as the crow flies from where he grew up in Roseau, Minnesota. Since the franchise moved to Winnipeg, Byfuglien married, and has three children. The Jets rewarded him in February 2016 with a five-year, $38 million contract to make him a key piece of the Jets’ future.

He just isn’t a big talker. Asked where his dance came from in Game 2, Byfuglien said he didn’t know.

He sure is talking to his teammates, trying to share his experience from that 2010 Cup run and offering advice on how to handle what they hope is a two-month run.

“We’ve obviously talked as a group,” Byfuglien said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride. It’s just take one game at a time, one shift at a time, and just believe in each other.”

Having Big Buff around certainly provides a confidence boost,

“Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous,” Little said.

West playoffs set after Avs beat Blues

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While two Eastern Conference matchups are still up in the air, the West is settled after the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in Colorado.

More on that decisive game in a moment. First, take a look at how it shakes out:

(Central 1) Nashville Predators vs. (Second wild) Colorado Avalanche

(Central 2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (Central 3) Minnesota Wild

(Pacific 1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (First wild) Los Angeles Kings

(Pacific 2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (Pacific 3) San Jose Sharks

Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy, so the Predators will hold home-ice advantage as long as they are in the playoffs. The Jets – Wild matchup seemed to be in the cards for some time, while there was plenty of turbulence below Vegas in the Pacific. The Ducks won their last game of the season while the Kings and Sharks fell on Saturday.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Out East, two intriguing playoff matchups are set. The Metropolitan Division-winning Washington Capitals will take on Columbus, the first wild card. Meanwhile, the in-state rivalry will continue for the Penguins and Flyers in the Metro’s two versus three matchup.

The Bruins and Lightning continue to vie for the Atlantic Division – and thus, the East’s eighth seed – so the Maple Leafs and Devils must wait to see who they’ll face. More on that here.

Play-in game

The Avalanche ended up winning 5-2 following a flurry of late goals (two for Colorado, one for St. Louis) with the Blues’ net empty. It ended up being closer than that score seemed, and there’s some controversy.

St. Louis has some reason to complain about Colorado’s second goal, as Tyson Barrie‘s power-play tally survived an offside review that’s more than a little bit polarizing:

The league ultimately determined that replays were inconclusive. Alex Pietrangelo was not happy after the game, as the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reports.

“Maybe they need some glasses in Toronto,” Pietrangelo said. ” … Maybe they’re guessing, or maybe they didn’t want us to get in the playoffs.”

With that, the Avalanche went up 2-0 6:11 into the second period, and the decision could have been even more controversial if the Blues would have failed to kill the delay of game penalty. St. Louis managed to kill it off, though.

Regardless, the game could have been very different if Colorado’s lead stayed at 1-0. Alongside Duncan Keith‘s last-second goal to cost the Blues a win, that Barrie goal stands as a painful “What if?” question for St. Louis.

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.

No change in Chicago: Blackhawks bringing Quenneville, Bowman back

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The Chicago Blackhawks won’t be overreacting to one bad season after a decade of success. On Thursday, team president John McDonough announced that both head coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman will return for the 2018-19 NHL season.

“I believe in continuity [and] they’ve had an incredible body of success,” McDonough said via the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not tethered to the past. This has been a very disappointing year and our expectations are incredibly high. We’re not going to deviate from those expectations. But I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”

[Which NHL teams will make a coaching change after the season?]

The Blackhawks will finish last in the Central Division and miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The biggest blow to their hopes was losing Crawford, who has been out since December with an upper-body injury. “We expect him to be fine” was the line from Quenneville this week about the goaltender’s status.

Quenneville still has two years and $12 million left on his contract, and if he would have been canned his unemployment wouldn’t have lasted very long considering the number of potential coaching changes that could happen around the league. Bowman, meanwhile, will have a busy summer with plenty of decisions to make. Chicago doesn’t have many contracts to deal with in the off-season, but Bowman’s focus could be trying to find ways to get out from some heavy contracts to bring in some new faces and hope it’s a different outcome next season.

Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dylan Sikura and Nick Schmaltz represent some of the fresh blood that’s been productive this season, and the hope is they can be part of that next core in Chicago. In the meantime, the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad and Crawford are taking up nearly $40 million cap space. Those seem like the safest bets to remain on the roster. So will Brent Seabrook and Artem Anisimov find themselves available? Are there any untouchables beyond Kane and Toews?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Blackhawks top Blues; Sabres clinch 31st; Ducks, Kings playoff-bound

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Player of the Night: Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

Before Wednesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues, DeBrincat said the Blackhawks wanted to “crush their hopes,” referring to the Blues’ playoff chances. Well, they did just that in dramatic fashion overcoming a 3-1 deficit to win 4-3. DeBrincat played a big role in the come back, scoring the game-tying goal with 11:30 to go and then assisting on Duncan Keith‘s winner with 8.5 seconds left.

Highlight of the Night: Duncan Keith, soul crusher:

MISC:

• Blake Hillman’s first NHL goal came shorthanded and helped cut the Blues’ lead to 3-2. He’s the fifth Blackhawks to record their first career goal this season.

• The Blackhawks win meant that the Los Angeles Kings clinched a playoff spot.

Alex Burrows and Ryan Dzingel each had a goal and an assist as the Ottawa Senators doubled up the Buffalo Sabres 4-2. Matt Duchene put home his team-leading 27th goal of the season.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

• With the loss the Buffalo Sabres secured 31st in the NHL and will now have the top odds (18.5 percent) in the NHL Draft Lottery, which will be held later this month. This is the third time in five years that Buffalo has finished in that position.

• Via the AP, the “Sabres’ league-worst 11 home wins matched a franchise low for any year, including the lockout-shortened 48-game 2012-13 season, when Buffalo went 11-10-3. Buffalo also went 11-19-9 during a 78-game season in 1971-72.”

Ondrej Kase put home a rebound with 3:56 left to snap a 1-1 tie and help give the Anaheim Ducks a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild. The victory also meant that Anaheim clinched a playoff spot for the sixth straight year.

• The Ducks now hold the third spot in the Pacific Division, one point behind the San Jose Sharks.

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Senators 4, Sabres 2
Blackhawks 4, Blues 3
Ducks 3, Wild 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Duncan Keith’s late winner helps strike blow to Blues’ playoff hopes

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Duncan Keith‘s goal with 8.5 seconds to go broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night.

The Blues are still in pursuit of a wild card spot in the Western Conference, but with the loss remain a point behind the Colorado Avalanche with two games to go, including a Saturday night tilt vs. the Avs.

Chicago wanted to play spoiler for their Central Division rivals, with Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat saying before the game, “They’re a good team and they’re fighting for a playoff spot right now. We’re not going out there and just letting them take it. We want to crush their hopes.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It was looking good for the Blues early in the second period when Vladimir Tarasenko gave the home side a 3-1 lead. But St. Louis and Jake Allen began to falter minutes later. Blackhawks rookie Blake Hillman jumped into the rush and scored his first NHL goal with Chicago on a power play to cut the deficit to 3-2 midway through the period.

With DeBrincat wanting to “crush their hopes,” he backed up his words and tied the game with 11:30 to go, thanks to some more questionable goaltending by Allen.

The self-destruction of the Blues continued as Chris Butler took a holding penalty with two minutes to go. The Blackhawks waited until the very end of that power play to capitalize, with Keith finally notching his second goal of the season and also sending the Los Angeles Kings to playoffs in the process.

Your thoughts, Doug Armstrong?

And as if the Blues haven’t been demonized enough by the Blackhawks, the two teams meet again Friday night at United Center. How soon will St. Louis be able to erase this one from memory and focus on the two biggest games of their season this weekend?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.