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Panthers' Bjugstad set for Minnesota homecoming

by Dan Myers /

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In Nick Bjugstad's second season as an NHL player, the Florida Panthers forward isn't afraid to admit he still leans heavily on his mom for help.

Case in point: His return to his home state Thursday, when the Panthers play the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.

Bjugstad's mother Janeen was in charge of soliciting friends and family for ticket requests. The response was overwhelming, with 160 people part of the Bjugstad cheering section.

"Hopefully they'll all be wearing red," Bjugstad said, quickly adding, "Panthers red," because the Wild use red as part of their color scheme. "My mom got a package deal. Thankfully, she took care of it all, seeing who is going to get the tickets, and I didn't have to worry too much about that. Mom came up big there."

The reunion started Wednesday evening for Bjugstad, a native of Blaine, Minn., who spent some time with a few of his former teammates at the University of Minnesota. He was picked up at the hotel by Gophers captain and Panthers draft pick Kyle Rau. Bjugstad also was able to have dinner with his family.

"It's a quick trip, but I always look forward to playing here," Bjugstad said. "I look forward to it and my family looks forward to it."

The game Thursday will be Bjugstad's second back home against the team he grew up cheering for. He had an assist last season in a 3-2 loss.

Bjugstad admitted this will be a much different trip for him and his teammates. The Panthers and Wild are in almost identical positions in opposite conferences, each four points behind the second wild-card position for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We're in a push right now and these are important points for us," Bjugstad said. "Just being in it is a lot more fun when you're winning and a part [of the playoff race].

"I know a lot of the guys on [the Wild]. It's going to be a good battle."

Perhaps as big a reason for Florida's turnaround as anybody, Bjugstad leads Florida with 18 goals and 33 points, establishing himself as one of the NHL's brightest up-and-coming stars.

Florida thinks so much of him that it signed Bjugstad to a six-year, $24.6 million contract at the end of December.

"He's a big strong guy out there and when he gets the puck he's tough to stop," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "He's a great player. We think a lot of the kid. We think he's going to be a good player for a long time."

Bjugstad said he's a more confident player this season, which has been a big reason for his breakout.

"My rookie year I didn't really know what to expect," Bjugstad said. "It's a big deal. Confidence, in this League, once you build that, it starts rolling."

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