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Byfuglien helps Jets to win against Maple Leafs

by Patrick Williams /

WINNIPEG -- There are times when Winnipeg Jets defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman Dustin Byfuglien can take over a game.

Byfuglien had a goal and an assist, several crushing hits, and 23:51 of ice time in a 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at MTS Centre on Saturday.

"He was the best player on the ice, just a dominant force in all aspects of the game," Jets coach Paul Maurice said.

Byfuglien moved back to the blue line in December and has reinforced a group missing regulars Zach Bogosian, Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba to long-term injuries.

Since the shift back to his natural position after an 11-month trial as a forward, Byfuglien has four goals and seven assists in 13 games. Byfuglien plays in all situations for the Jets and has logged at least 25 minutes in 10 of the 13 games.

Byfuglien's ninth goal capped Winnipeg's three-goal outburst in a 6:35 second-period span. The Jets (20-12-7), who had lost two games in a row, got two goals from their third line, with TJ Galiardi and Matt Halischuk scoring. Bryan Little scored a power-play goal, and Ben Chiarot, Byfuglien's defense partner, scored his first NHL goal.

"It's just confidence," Byfuglien said of his offensive-zone play. "It's knowing that I can protect the puck and find time and room for someone else to get open, and hopefully they can make it happen afterwards."

Byfuglien also helped hold Toronto's top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov scoreless.

"There is more to Dustin's game than just going out and putting up numbers," Maurice said. "We need him to play against the other team's best, to play big minutes, and he certainly has embraced that."

The Maple Leafs were playing their fifth game in seven days, ending a season-high seven-game road trip that finished 2-5-0. Former Jets player Mike Santorelli scored for Toronto (21-16-3), which lost for the seventh time in nine games.

"It has been a terrible trip for our team," Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said.

Toronto goalie James Reimer made 35 saves after Jonathan Bernier made back-to-back starts. Michael Hutchinson started for the fifth time in Winnipeg's past seven games and made 20 saves.

"Tonight we were a little tired, but I don't really want to give to give that as an excuse," Reimer said.

After Santorelli made it 1-0 at 2:19 of the second period, Galiardi tied the game 1:10 later with his first goal of the season. Galiardi, moved to the third line with Halischuk and center Adam Lowry, snuck into the low slot and sent a bouncing puck past Reimer.

"It's something that we have been working on all [season]," Galiardi said of the quick response. "When you give up a goal, you want to come back right away and have a good shift afterward."

Halischuk's second goal of the season at 5:59 gave the Jets a 2-1 lead. He worked himself to the edge of Reimer's crease, where he tipped Chiarot's shot from the left point.

Byfuglien put Winnipeg up 3-1 at 10:04 when he snapped a shot from the bottom of the right circle past Reimer.

"I would say that they definitely outskated our hockey [team] tonight, and that's one thing that, this group of ours, we believe we can skate," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "We didn't skate tonight, that's for sure."

Little made it 4-1 with a wrist shot from the slot at 3:37 of the third period. His Jets-leading 15th goal came during the first half of a double-minor to Maple Leafs defenseman Korbinian Holzer.

Chiarot made it 5-1 with 9:05 left. The goal came in his 14th NHL game, all but one this season.

"We know that back-to-backs are going to be challenging when the other team has been rested for [three] days," Carlyle said. "Usually what you try to do is you try to get your structure and your play simple. You stop in the defensive zone, you don't get above the puck, you're always on the defensive side, and our group did none of that."

When the Maple Leafs last played at home, on Dec. 19, they held the first Eastern Conference wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a five-point lead on the second wild-card team at the time, the New York Rangers. After the loss Saturday, Toronto is in the second wild-card spot, two points ahead of the Florida Panthers, who have four games in hand.

"We've got to find a way out," Phaneuf said. "We will. But this was a terrible trip for our team. There is no sugarcoating it. We're extremely disappointed in the way that we have not been able to get the job done on this trip."

Toronto's path to the playoffs will not become any easier in January. After returning to Air Canada Centre for two games next week, the Maple Leafs play nine of 11 on the road.

"There are a bunch of things that are ailing our hockey [team], and we're going to have to get back to practice, focus on the process, regroup with our players and [correct] some of the things that [have been] rearing their ugly head over the last little while," Carlyle said.

Byfuglien was moved to forward in January 2014 one game before the Jets fired coach Claude Noel. For much of Byfuglien's time in Winnipeg, his high-risk, high-reward style, and position, have been a topic of debate.

When Maurice replaced Noel, he overhauled Winnipeg's defensive structure in all three zones. Maurice has turned a team that finished 22nd in the League with 2.82 goals allowed per game last season into the fourth-best defensive team with 2.31 goals allowed per game.

"[Moving Byfuglien to defense] has worked out well because we had gotten a foundation down," Maurice said. "He clearly wants to play defense, so when he got his opportunity, he knew that there was a structure there that he had to adhere to. Not just to stay [as a defenseman], but for our team to be successful. Now you're seeing a guy that is a dominant defenseman.

"You cannot find [dominant defensemen]. You can find top-nine forwards, but you cannot find players like Dustin Byfuglien on the blue line as he is now, not as he was last [season]."

Byfuglien was asked if he has ever played better during his NHL career, and he was in a playful mood.

"No," Byfuglien said jokingly. "Not even close."

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