March 14, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

More than a Scorer

Minnesota's Bjugstad Helps Gophers in Many Ways

by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter

As the sun set on the Chicago skyline last month, what was a scenic evening of hockey at Soldier Field between Minnesota and Wisconsin did not feel like it. Winds and temperatures dropping into the high teens drove fans to find shelter. Meanwhile, the ice in the center of the historic stadium was visibly deteriorating faster than the falling temperatures and players on both teams regularly hit ruts and fell.

Chicago in February is not paradise, but for Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad the weather at the Hockey City Classic was compared to his last outdoor game.

Bjugstad was a high school freshman in 2008 when his Blaine (Miin.) team traveled to a picturesque bay near the Canadian border in Baudette, Minn., for an outdoor game as part of the annual Hockey Day Minnesota celebration. There they played Roseau (and former Gopher teammate Aaron Ness) in a -30 degree wind chill.

“(The organizers) were about to cancel it and do it indoors but they battled through because they put a lot of money in it,” recalled the junior about his experience. “It was a fun game, just really cold.”

Deteriorating ice or not, things don’t get much worse than playing outside in a -30 degree wind chill. Simple things like stopping become hard and even the puck bounces on the ice differently. Just being able to say you did it gets outweighed by the dangers of the extreme cold. -30 degrees is the type of weather where in a different era grandparents would tell their grandchildren about how they had to walk in it to school up hills both ways.

It’s the type of weather and experience that has suited Bjugstad well this season. Although Nick is literally a big man on campus at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, the soft spoken and upbeat forward felt like he has grown with another year in Dinkytown.

“I’ve learned quite a bit. We got a great coaching staff here, so they’ve been teaching me ever since I was a freshman. I really feel like I’ve matured a lot as a player and a person,” he said.

But being back was no guarantee. The 2010 first round pick by the Florida Panthers could have signed a professional contract following Minnesota’s run to the Frozen Four last year. No one would have faulted him. In a time where many top picks that choose the college route spend one or two years on campus, the expectation is that a player with the size, skating ability and skill of Bjugstad will leave.

Instead, he decided to return to the Gophers for one more season and in the process raised expectations for both the team and himself.

Whether those expectations where fair can be debated. For many, however, anything short of Bjugstad, who scored 25 goals as a sophomore, dominating college hockey and leading Minnesota to a national title would be a disappointment.

Still, that’s a lot of pressure for anyone to undertake and the 20-year old admitted at times this season that he expect too much of himself. Teams have focused on shutting Bjugstad and his linemates down. Goals have been difficult to come across over stretches. It’s safe to say that the thought of the Panthers prospect dominating his competition sounded better on paper than executed.

At the same time, Bjugstad has found other ways besides the scoresheet to contribute. The center finished the regular season sixth in the nation in face-off percentage (59.6 percent) despite taking more than any other Gopher and shutting down some of the best. He’s also been one of the alternate captains for the Gophers this year, having taken upon a leadership role.

“As a leader, I guess I have grown a little bit,” said Bjugstad.

Most importantly, Nick has added another weapon to his hockey game. His skating allows him opportunities to shy away from being physical and using his frame. That is something he’s worked on throughout the year to change.

“I try to stick with it. I play with Kyle (Rau), and he’s pretty physical,” Bjugstad said about trying to add an edge to his game. “Obviously you need to play physical if you’re trying to play in the upper levels. I’m still trying to do that, try to bear down at the end of the season and make sure.

“If I’m going to make the jump eventually, I know that’s going to be one of my roles.”

It paid off against Denver two weekends ago when a hit turned Minnesota’s fortunes around in the second period of the Saturday game. Following an embarrassing shutout loss Friday, Bjugstad laid out freshman Nolan Zajac with a massive hit that kept the tired defenseman on the ice after the Pioneers iced the puck. Minnesota took advantage on the ensuing shift to score their first goal of the weekend and hasn’t looked back since.

The Gophers, who are 7-0-0 this season following a loss, scored five straight goals to defeat Denver. They followed that up by sweeping Bemidji State and claiming a share of the MacNaughton Cup with St. Cloud State. Bjugstad has scored four goals, including a pair of game-winners, during that three-game stretch to end the regular season to boost his team lead in goals up to 20 (sixth in the nation). His 10 power play goals, meanwhile, are tied for third in the nation.

“We showed what a hard working team we can be,” Bjugstad said following the Denver win. “Every once in a while we need a reminder. We’re college kids so every once in a while we need a kick in the butt.”

Expectations, as hard as they can be to hit, are always changing. One man’s bad ice is a tropical day to another. Sometimes those expectations are internal and can be as small as trying to work on being more physical for the next level rather than external ones placed upon you.

Bjugstad has grown both on and off the ice this year playing college hockey. As the season winds down, it may not be the individual stat domination some expected from the junior. However, the extra year hasn’t been a disappointment by any means.

With the WCHA postseason and NCAA Tournament on the horizon, any look at individual stats turns to a team effort. The effort that makes all the “kicks in the butt,” as Bjugstad put it, worth it.

For Nick Bjugstad and his Minnesota teammates, that leaves one final goal, one that escaped them last season — a national championship.

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