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Dustin Byfuglien Suspension Could Cost Winnipeg Jets Playoff Spot
Entering NHL play on Thursday night, the Winnipeg Jets hold down the eighth and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 90 points, two ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles. Both the Jets and Kings have five games left. Normally you would favor the Jets because they have the lead, but not with the news Wednesday that probably the team's best player, defensemen/sometimes winger Dustin Byfuglien has been suspended four games by the league. It's a devastating loss. Bovada currently has the Jets as even money to make the playoffs and -140 to miss. The Kings are -170 to make it and +125 to miss.
The incident in question happened Tuesday after New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller fell near Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Before Miller could get up, the 260-pound Byfuglien two-handed him with his stick in the back of his neck, driving his head to the ice. Miller was able to remain in the game and set up Chris Kreider's game-winning goal.
"Some measurement of physicality in front of the net is common and acceptable, particularly when defensemen are attempting to protect their goaltender," the NHL's Patrick Burke said in a video. "In this case, however, Miller is defenseless and out of the play by the time Byfuglien initiates contact."
Burke noted that Mark Scheifele has already taken the puck out of harm's way. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the game that it was one of the "most vicious cross-checks" he has seen this year, noting that Byfuglien could have broken Miller's neck.
"The threat of Miller getting another scoring has passed and is in ineligible to be hit in any way," he said.
Byfuglien, who has been fined three times previously by the league, will forfeit $111,827.96 in pay. He has 18 goals, 27 assists and 45 points, tops on the team among blue-liners. His booming shot has contributed to 17 power-play points, second on the team.
Jets coach Paul Maurice has a decision to make with his lineup. Ben Chiarot, who has missed 16 games with a hand injury, was tentatively scheduled to return to the roster for Saturday’s critical matchup against the Vancouver Canucks. He had been occasionally working with Byfuglien in a pairing that, at times this season, was the Jets’ top unit. Maurice could also turn to veteran Jay Harrison, a healthy scratch for the last three games, and lean on his experience. Worth noting here: The Jets are 18-9-3 with Harrison in the lineup and 19-10-7 when Chiarot sees action.
The Jets were able to overcome Byfuglien's recent injury absence, going 6-3 while he nursed his wounds last month. But they clearly are a better team when Byfuglien is in the lineup. With his size and shot, he is a game-changer. He scored three goals in the first two games after his return.
Winnipeg has games remaining with the Vancouver Canucks (Saturday), Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and the Calgary Flames. These are the most important games the Jets have played since the team moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg in 2011.
The Kings' remaining schedule: vs. Edmonton (Thursday night), vs. Colorado, at Vancouver, at Edmonton, at Calgary, vs. San Jose.
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