Byfuglien becomes the Big Befuddlin'
The Hawks need Dustin Byfuglien to become a factor in front of the net.
PHILADELPHIA -- After scoring three go-ahead goals in the Western Conference finals, Dustin Byfuglien was becoming, to quote Game 4's most famous fan, Vice President Joe Biden, a big bleepin' deal.
Now, he's a big bleepin' question mark, disappearing in the finals like his teammate Marian Hossa did last year for Detroit.
To put it mildly: What the heck happened to Big Buff?
He's been noticed more for losing his temper than gaining ground in front of the net. He's getting his hits, but the Blackhawks need him to finish shots, not shoulder checks.
Well, mostly he's met a rough-and-tumble group of defensemen, led by Public Enemy No. 20 Chris Pronger, who gets blamed for more malfeasance in Chicago than the mob and city hall combined.
It wasn't that long ago that Byfuglien was the toast of Chicago, a bigger monument to the city's love of grandiosity than the Willis Tower. From the end of the Vancouver series throughout the San Jose series, he scored goals in five straight games as his body, and booty, became a staple in front of the net.
But in the Stanley Cup finals, he's been the Big Befuddlin'.
It's not just him, of course, but Byfuglien has evolved into the patron saint for ugly goals. The Hawks had 34 shots in their 5-3 loss that evened the series at 2-2 Friday night, but until the third period, they weren't getting those junk goals in front of the net. Byfuglien was on the ice for Brian Campbell's late goal that made it 4-3, alongside Jonathan Toews and Andrew Ladd. Ladd said he thought the three worked together to create a size mismatch down low.
In the sweep against the Sharks, Byfuglien, Toews and Co. often looked like curlers the way they were shaving ice in the crease, working for those rebound opportunities.
You can talk about a few misplays here and a few bad penalties there for why the Hawks have lost two straight game for the first time this postseason, but the reality of the situation is, they need to make their own luck.
Having faced their biggest deficit since the second round, the Hawks pulled themselves together late and nearly pulled off a wild comeback, putting up some quality tying chances in the waning minutes.
"At the end, we had more traffic," Hossa said of his team's "But in the beginning, we're shooting pucks and everything was easy for [Flyers goalie Michael] Leighton. But if we want to score, we need to get to the net more and get more traffic in front of him."
So is it all on Byfuglien, the 257-pound anchor of the Money Line with Toews and Patrick Kane? After all, he was the veritable closer of the Western finals.
"It doesn't matter who it is," said Toews, who was the most perturbed of the Blackhawks who were made available to the media.(Byfuglien was missing in the locker room as well as in front of the net.)
"We can all go to the net and score some ugly goals. If it's not Buff, it's got to be somebody else. It's not just one guy that has to play like that."
Hossa said the team needs to relax a little bit. Maybe a return to the United Center after two games in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd will help them do just that.
"It's not easy," Hossa said. "This is the Stanley Cup finals. We knew coming in it wasn't going to be easy. Sometimes you get frustrated."
One way to open things up is get on the power play. The Hawks finally connected on a power-play goal by Dave Bolland in the third period, but it took a 5-on-3 to do it. Coming in the Hawks were 0-for-6 on power plays and they whiffed on their first two Friday night.
Hossa and Toews both said the Hawks need to play smarter hockey and that's evident on some of their power-play chances. Mostly Chicago just needs to attack Leighton and remind him of Game 1, when he was pulled. That 2-0 lead and feeling of invincibility that surrounded this franchise as it won games playing to less than its full ability is long gone. Now is the time to attack.
"I think we did a better job of that tonight, throwing pucks at the net and not passing up shots," Toews said. "We've got to get some breaks to go our way, work as hard as we can and find a way to get in there."
The Hawks, not to mention their aggrieved fans, are crowing at the paucity of calls against the Flyers, especially Pronger. What's more important, Toews said, is that Hawks draw those penalties. It's better to be the hunted, than the hunters in that case.
"That's out of our control, getting calls or not," Toews said. "It's going to happen, but we can't whack back. Retaliation penalties are what stand out, especially for the officiating. We've got to try our best to get under their skin, make them whack us back instead of us taking the penalties."
Toews wasn't talking about Byfuglien directly there, but really he was saying: Can you say Whack-a-Buff?
It's time for Byfuglien to turn the tables on the Flyers, and if he doesn't make his presence felt, it could make for the beginning of a very long summer in Chicago.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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