WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - At 6-5, 260 pounds, with a surprisingly swift stride and a sour-sweet disposition, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is a player like no other in the National Hockey League.
Some nights, a gambling, undisciplined style proves costly to his team.
And then there are nights like Game One of the NHL Western Conference Final on Saturday.
Byfuglien, 33, was a force of nature, scoring the opening goal, assisting on another, and dealing a huge hit. The Jets beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 in Winnipeg to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game Two takes place on Monday in Winnipeg.
“You saw the Dustin Byfuglien spectrum,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said after the game.
“He can shoot the puck a ton. He can make soft-hand plays, and then he can be as big and strong as you want out there. And he’s been very consistent in his game.”
In a league that rewards speed and strength, Byfuglien, a linebacker-shaped native of neighboring Minnesota, has both.
He now has five goals and 10 assists in 13 games in this year’s NHL playoffs, building a highlight reel that has seen him score at key moments - and once against the Nashville Predators - break into a spontaneous on-ice dance celebration.
“He’s been huge all year,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “He’s really taken his game to another level. This is the time when he really shines.”
Byfuglien, a rare late-round draft pick to achieve NHL stardom, already has a Stanley Cup ring from his time with the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks, who played him at forward.
That he is halfway to adding another ring with Winnipeg may surprise some who watched him skate earlier in his career with the Jets, the former Thrashers franchise that moved north from Atlanta in 2011.
Byfuglien attracted fan criticism for sometimes appearing to be overweight and disinterested on the ice.
That may be part of the reason that Byfuglien is surprisingly shy and understated off it and rarely speaks to the media.
“That’s just a full team effort right there,” Byfuglien said on Saturday, asked about the team’s win over Vegas.
Editing by Peter Rutherford