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If his Winnipeg Jets teammates drew any measure of inspiration from Dustin Byfuglien’s return to the lineup Saturday night, none revealed it.
The burly blue-liner suited up for the first time since Valentine’s Day, receiving a whole lot of love from fans at Bell MTS Place when his name was called along with the rest of the Jets starters.
While he threw a couple of hefty hits, his play wasn’t particularly impactful in another sluggish Winnipeg performance, this time resulting in a 3-1 defeat to the quick-skating, hard-checking Montreal Canadiens, although the 34-year-old from Roseau, Minn., gets a short grace period after being sidelined for 19 games with a lower-body injury.
But Byfuglien’s imposing presence alone — after several days of eager anticipation over his return — didn’t spark the Jets, who are in a serious tailspin after suffering their third consecutive defeat, all on home ice.
Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice didn’t exactly ease him into the fray. He led all skaters with 24 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time, including 2:11 on the penalty kill.
Maurice said the onus wasn’t on the veteran blue-liner to be a catalyst for change.
“I thought he did good things. I was hoping he could get through the game. It looked he was at speed, and for the most part I thought he was and it’ll get better. I didn’t think we needed that jolt in terms of the other players needing it to get them going,” he said.
“I wasn’t expecting (his return) to be the change in everything. We liked our game three games ago, we haven’t liked our last three very much. He’s an important player for us for sure, we’re glad he’s back. But I’m always careful thinking one guy’s going to change your game.”
Byfuglien was on the penalty kill when ex-Jets winger Joel Armia scored into a gaping cage to open the scoring late in the first period, finishing off a nifty passing play by Jordan Weal and Phillip Danault just eight seconds after a faceoff following Nikolaj Ehlers’ minor penalty for tripping.
Byfuglien vacated his corner of the box and challenged Weal, who calmly dished to Danault near the side of the net. Danault quickly fed Armia for his 12th goal — tying his career high set a year ago with Winnipeg.
Later, he clanked a hard blast off the post with 5:54 left in the second period and Winnipeg down 1-0.
It was just the 38th game of the year for Byfuglien, who has been injured four times this season, missing 40 contests. He has four goals and 30 points, and will finish with his lowest point total since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign when he had 28 points in 43 games.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said it was good to have him back.
“Of course, Buff’s one of the most premier players in the league, one of the best. I thought he had a good game,” said Wheeler. “You know, he was much like the rest of our team. There wasn’t a lot of easy ice out there, I felt.
“There wasn’t a lot of opportunities to make plays. Better get used to it,” he added, a reference to tight-checking playoff hockey.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).