Big Buff plays big role for Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO (AP) — Here's how Dustin Byfuglien sees it: The puck always finds him when he is in the perfect position. His Chicago Blackhawks teammates view it this way: Big Buff's easy to find when he's open because at 6-foot-4, 257 pounds, he's hard to miss.

Whatever the reason, Byfuglien has emerged as a star for the young Blackhawks. He scored three game-winning goals during a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals that put Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992.

Like a big tight end clawing his way through defenders to get open or a linebacker crushing a running back with a block in the open field, Byfuglien's physical play, deft touch and ability to clear space have given his team another element in its quest for the franchise's first NHL title since 1961.

Put him on the same line with the team's most recognizable and publicized young stars, 21-year-old Patrick Kane and 22-year-old captain Jonathan Toews, and Byfuglien has really blossomed. He scored one goal in each game against the Sharks.

"I'm not really on any cloud right now," said Byfuglien (pronounced BUHF'-lihn). "I'm just doing work for the kids and finishing it up. I have faith in myself and I just kept going."

Byfuglien, who had a hat trick in a victory over the Canucks in the semifinals when he took up his customary role in front of goalie Roberto Luongo, showed his versatility against the Sharks. He had the game-winner in the opener with a wrist shot from the slot after Toews won a faceoff and Kane slid him the puck.

"With those two you never know what's going to happen," Byfuglien said.

When Game 3 against the Sharks went to overtime, Byfuglien skated to the high slot and from there another player who has played a key role in the postseason, Dave Bolland, made a pass from behind the net and Byfuglien converted. It was Kane-to-Byfuglien again in Sunday's clinching Game 4.

"Kane threw it at the net. Sure enough, there he is to bang home the game winner again. He knows how to get open, how to create space for the two of us," Toews said.

"He's been great. You know, it's not like he's getting lucky. He's working hard."

When the Blackhawks were struggling and battling injuries on defense late in the season, Byfuglien made the switch to the blue line and played well. When the playoffs rolled around, it was time for him to go back to forward. In the playoffs a year ago, he scored three goals and had six assists in 17 games — all of his scoring coming on the road.

This year, he's already scored eight goals in Chicago's 16 playoff games and four of them have been game-winners. Did he ever believe he could be so successful?

"Absolutely," he said.

The 25-year-old Byfuglien is a Minneapolis native who was Chicago's eighth-round pick in the 2003 draft and broke in during the 2005-06 season. In the regular season this year, he had career highs in goals (17), assists (17) and points. Staying consistent has been something he's had to work on.

"He certainly had a remarkable playoffs, particularly last two rounds. I think when he got back to forward there, I think he would rather play defense, but right now today, he'll discount that and say no way," coach Joel Quenneville said.

"He creates so much space when he does get in the net. He's a hard body to move. Has a decent set of hands Physically, he can be overpowering."

Byfuglien is ready to absorb punishment that can come with being parked near the crease. It's a wild and frenetic place to be, especially during the playoffs with pushing, shoving and bodies flying.

"You have to have confidence to stand there and kind of read off what they are doing to you," he said. "You find an open area where your stick can get down and make sure you can get to the puck."