After hitting a bit of a bump on their road to the playoffs in late January, the Florida Panthers are back to winning ways, going 3-0-1 in their last four games. The Cats leave South Florida for a quick two-game road trip, with the first stop in Panthers F Nick Bjugstad’s home state.
On pace for a career year, Bjugstad leads the Cats with 18 goals and 33 points this season. The 22-year old center has played countless games at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota as a college and high school athlete, but has only played once as an NHLer. Last season, Bjugstad returned home to face the Wild for the first time in his NHL career, but didn’t get the outcome he had hoped for with the Cats falling 3-2 on Nov. 15, 2013.
“The first time I was really nervous,” said Bjugstad. “It was the beginning of the year. I’ve watched the Wild growing up my whole life, so it was a little nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time. I’m definitely excited this time around. We’re having a little different season [this time]. The points are big for us, I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
At this point in the season, the Panthers and Wild are both pushing for a playoff spot in their respective conferences, making this hometown visit one with big implications for Bjugstad and the Cats. Although the setting may not be in South Florida, the Panthers will have full support from some familiar faces for Bjugstad in the crowd in Minnesota.
“My Mom got 160 tickets for the game. She made it easy on me so I didn’t have to deal with it,” laughed Bjugstad. “She’ll be wearing Panther gear, so we’ll have a little cheering section for the Panthers. It’ll be fun to get back home, see my family tonight, have some dinner and see all of my friends tomorrow.”
Among those friends is Florida Panthers prospect and University of Minnesota Captain, Kyle Rau. Rau and Bjugstad played hockey against each other growing up, but were teammates during Bjugstad’s three seasons at University of Minnesota (2010-13).
“I talk to Kyle quite a bit, it’s fun to hear from him. I think he’ll be ready to go next year and make the jump to the pro level. I’m excited for that, he’s a good player. I have a lot of good friends from that team [University of Minnesota], some of them will make it to the game tomorrow because they don’t play so that’ll be good.”
A standout player during his time with the Golden Gophers, Bjugstad entered his freshman season as a first round draft choice (19th overall) by Florida in 2010. He was also awarded the title of Minnesota Mr. Hockey, which is given to the most outstanding senior high school hockey player in the state of Minnesota. Bjugstad earned his degree in this past offseason from the University of Minnesota and still is tuned into what his Alma Mater is up to these days.
“During All-Star Break I went to a couple of Gophers games, actually at the Xcel Energy Center for a tournament there. Every weekend I keep tabs on them, if I can’t watch them online, I keep tabs on them on Twitter.”
Bjugstad has yet to record a win or a goal in his NHL career in the land of 10,000 lakes and although it’s crossed his mind, Florida's leading scorer is focused on the bigger picture.
“I think about it a little bit. I’ll take the win over anything. Right now it’s a playoff push for us, so I just have to play the normal game I’ve been playing, I can’t worry too much about playing in my hometown. The adrenaline will be going for sure. I’m excited to play.”
The Panthers take on the Wild on Feb. 12 at 8:30 P.M. EST.
33 Pts. (18-22—33)
GOLDEN GOPHER DAYS
98 Pts. (54-44—98)
First Round Draft Choice (19th overall) 2010 NHL Draft
2010 Minnesota Mr. Hockey