Even with loss to Wild, Nick Bjugstad enjoys memorable homecoming
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - In his home state, in a rink he's played in several times before, with dozens of friends and family looking on, Florida Panthers rookie center Nick Bjugstad found himself in unfamiliar surroundings on Friday.
When it was all over, and the Panthers' comeback had fallen short and the Minnesota Wild had claimed a 3-2 win, dropping the Panthers to a listless 4-12-4 - with just one road win all season - Bjugstad was the inhabitant of a losing locker room. That's a place he hasn't been much in his hockey career.
As a high school star in Blaine, he played in the Minnesota State Tournament and was named Mr. Hockey as a senior. He won two conference titles and skated in the NCAA Frozen Four during his three seasons with the Gophers. Now, with a sizable paycheck, and a home in the sunshine of South Florida, life is good, but life at the rink is much harder.
The Panthers trailed 2-0 after 20 minutes on Friday, due in part to the offense of Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, and due also to a Florida team that can't seem to get its act together in the first period this season.
"That's a commonality for our team. We put together two good periods. You can't be sleeping for one period, and that's what we did," Bjugstad said. "We made a good comeback. Guys were working and there are a lot of positives to take out of it. A lot of times we almost get angry and come out better in the second and third. We've got to find a way to play all three periods."
The Panthers stormed back with two goals in the third period to tie it. Bjugstad assisted on the second one - his seventh professional point in his 14th game this season (he had a goal in 11 games last year, when he signed with Florida shortly after the Gophers went one-and-done in the NCAA playoffs). But again, it wasn't enough. Charlie Coyle's late goal improved the Wild to 9-1-2 at home.
There were roughly 70 Bjugstad friends and family in the crowd, many of them wearing Panthers red, and most stuck around afterward to say hi. They were all smiles, just as Bjugstad had been earlier in the day when he talked of his life in the Sunshine State, getting paid well to play hockey, and of coming home.
"I did go back to campus to say hi to some of the guys from last year, so I got to say hi to them and wish good luck for the weekend," he said. "I didn't get my Mesa Pizza. I'm a big fan of that place down in Dinkytown, but I've got to watch the diet. Maybe next summer."
Members of the Miami media asked if he'd feel jitters skating onto the Xcel Energy Center ice for a NHL game. Like a good veteran of Minnesota prep hockey, Bjugstad he'd been there for much bigger games.
"The most surreal experience was jumping on the ice in the state tournament against Eden Prairie, looking around at all those people," Bjugstad said. "I've experienced it, which is nice, but playing in front of the family and friends is really nice."
Playing on a line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann, one can already see that Bjugstad's size and skills are a big part of what Florida is trying to build for the future.
"You see how well Bjugstad plays out there. If not our best he's probably our most consistent forward at this point. He's got talent, but he's been very consistent in the games I've been here," said Panthers coach Peter Horachek after the team's morning skate. "A lot of that comes down to the size he has. He's able to do things other guys can't. He's able to hold off and protect pucks in that way. Size is a big factor."
Off the ice, Bjugstad says he's enjoying life in the tropics, getting out to fish for bass when he can, and protecting his Scandinavian skin from the relentless Florida sun. And being a newbie in the NHL, he's got more work than he's used to as well.
"I'm a rookie, so I have some rookie duties which is a little different from last year," Bjugstad said, recounting tales of picking up pucks, being the last one off the team bus and always showing respect for his elders on the team. Clearly, a far cry from some of the locker room issues other pro teams in South Florida have dealt with this season. "But it's exciting and the guys are great."
When it was over, the Panthers dressed quietly. Bjugstad talked to the media, then asked how the Gophers had done - they beat Minnesota State 4-1 in Minneapolis - and which of their freshmen had scored. It was another loss for Florida, something that's become all too familiar for Bjugstad already. But for one night anyway, the rink and many of the fans were familiar, even if the post-game letdown was not.
"I've always wanted to play against the Wild at their place, so it was fun," Bjugstad said with a bit of a force smile. He then spent plenty of time with friends and was likely the last one on the Panthers team bus as they headed for MSP and a flight to Denver.
And in accordance with team rules, at the airport the rookie would be the last one off.