-- Before the NHL was even a remote possibility, Chicago Blackhawks
forward Dustin Byfuglien
remembers watching Calgary's Jarome Iginla
and thinking, "What if?"
"Jarome is an amazing player and I've watched him since I was really young before I really even seriously followed the NHL," Byfuglien, 24, said. "I always knew who he was and he's been great and now when I watch him out there I think, 'Why can't I do that?' "
Absolutely no reason, as Byfuglien has proven, advancing to the second round where the Blackhawks are now tied with the Vancouver Canucks
1-1, heading into Tuesday's Game 3 at United Center (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).
There's also a sense of pride, perhaps, as Byfuglien and Iginla are both of African descent (Byfuglien is American, Iginla a Canadian). But while he might not be as skilled as his idol and doesn't have a "C" stitched to his jersey as does Iginla, the Minneapolis, Minn., native does possess the same zest and enthusiasm every shift and the Calgary Flames
took notice during their six-game Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
Byfuglien notched his first point of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- an assist late in the second period -- to play a part in a 5-1 decision against the Flames in Game 5. The victory gave the Blackhawks a 3-2 series lead, and they eliminated Calgary two nights later for the franchise's first postseason series victory since 1996.
After going scoreless in the first four games, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Byfuglien contributed 1 goal and 3 assists in the final two games.
Byfuglien's approach to the game goes much deeper than numbers on the score sheet, however. When he begins throwing his weight around, opposing players have little choice but to concern themselves with his whereabouts and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville
"He's a big body and big presence and helps the power play," Quenneville said. "He forces loose pucks on the forecheck. He's one of the those guys where there's an awareness when he's out there and Buff's a guy we need to set the physical tone for the game."
And that's precisely what he does.
In the opening two games against Calgary, Byfuglien totaled 14 hits and the Blackhawks scored back-to-back victories. In Games 3 and 4, he totaled 5 hits -- perhaps a sign of the fatigue normally associated with playoff hockey -- and the Blackhawks lost both matches.
Byfuglien decided to stay off his skates during an off-day practice between Games 4 and 5, but returned with renewed vigor for Game 6.
"It's that time of the year when you need a little rest," Byfuglien said. "I felt like I needed it."
He never goes out of his way to look for the big body check but, instead, has a genuine feel for the game and players seem to be looking out for him providing ample opportunity to pick and choose his spots. Byfuglien concluded Game 5 with 3 hits, including a thunderous open-ice collision that sent the United Center crowd into its usual frenzy. In the first round, he placed second on the Hawks with 23 hits, one behind defenseman Brent Seabrook
"I feel like I've gotten a bit more physical now than in the regular season and I guess that's what playoff hockey does," Byfuglien said. "I'm someone with a big body so I feel it's something I have to do. But, at the same time, I still need to get out there and show a good presence. I feel that I just need to keep it simple and not go out of my way to make a big hit, but if it's there take it."
Byfuglien was selected by the Blackhawks in the eighth round (No. 245) of the 2003 Entry Draft as a defenseman, but was moved to forward to provide the club with a larger body in the slot.
He concluded his fourth regular season 11th on the team with 31 points in a career-high 77 games while leading all forwards with 169 hits. It may come as a surprise to know that he ranked third on the team with 202 shots while generating 2 goals and 5 points in his final seven regular-season matches. Byfuglien also became the first Blackhawks player in over 32 years to record a game-winning goal off a penalty shot (Cliff Koroll, 1976) in a victory against Detroit on April 11.
The Blackhawks signed Byfuglien in 2005 and assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk, where he earned a spot in the AHL All-Star Game two-straight seasons. He made his NHL debut in 2005-06, scoring 3 goals, 5 points, 45 shots and 40 hits in 25 games.
Byfuglien admits he didn't have an opportunity to chat with Iginla in the midst of their six-game playoff series, but that didn't mean he wasn't paying attention to his boyhood idol.
"You're competing against each other and, even if you're buddies, you really don't have time to talk," Byfuglien said. "I still enjoy watching him play though."
Does he sometimes feel the urge to emulate Iginla's all-around game?
"Not really, I play my own game and have my own style," he said. "I'll do what I'm capable of doing, just like Jarome would do for his team. If it helps us win some games then I've done my job."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com