Nick Bjugstad is back. Now, the Florida Panthers need his scoring to return, too.
A 12-game win streak has spiraled into a four-game slump in which the Panthers have scored five total goals. After another disappointing output Monday, Florida was left looking for an explanation.
Their 23-year-old center isn’t the worst place to start.
Bjugstad began the year on a torrid pace, scoring seven goals in the first 17 games, but the 23-year-old center missed all of December because of migraines and has struggled to return to his early-season form. Bjugstad has netted just one goal since his Jan. 3 return from injury. The breakthrough — his first goal since Nov. 23 — came Sunday against Tampa Bay, but the Panthers will need more from last year’s leading goal scorer. He managed three shots in 15 minutes 33 seconds of ice time Monday but also was responsible for a turnover in the offensive zone that led to the deciding Edmonton empty-net goal.
“I’m all right,” Bjugstad said Monday. “I thought I played good [Monday] other than that offensive error there that cost us. Just trying to get back into it. It’s sometimes hard to come back from an injury, but I’ve got no excuse. Had a month off resting the legs; I’ve got to find a way here.”
During the 12-game win streak, Florida averaged 3.33 goals per game. That mark would be good for best in the league over the course of a season, but it also is a bit misleading. Four five-goal performances boosted the Panthers’ stats, but they also won five of the 12 games by one goal. Perhaps more telling: the stretch included four two-goal outputs and three 2-1 decisions. Florida’s season average of 2.52 goals per game ranks just 17th in the NHL.
Bjugstad said he couldn’t explain the drop in scoring over the past few games, but he maintained the Panthers couldn’t solely rely on Jaromir Jagr (15 goals, 32 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau (7, 31), who helped carry the team in his absence. Rather, larger contributions from other lines — such as a fourth-line goal Monday — will help solve the problem, Bjugstad said.
With two days of practice before the Chicago Blackhawks come to town, the Panthers also would be wise to sort out their power-play issues. The Panthers’ power-play unit has failed on 23 consecutive chances dating to a Jan. 2 goal against the New York Rangers. That stretch has pushed Florida back to a 15.5 percent power-play success rate, which ranks third-worst in the league.
One of coach Gerard Gallant’s attempts to fix the issue involved swapping Bjugstad for Jagr on the first power-play unit. Bjugstad said the lineup with Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov provided the Panthers with some good time in the offensive zone. The time, however, wasn’t necessarily high quality, Bjugstad said.
Yet although Monday’s game against Edmonton didn’t provide the elusive power-play goal, Gallant said he was encouraged by the progress.
“Baby steps,” Gallant said. “It was better. There were some chances [Monday]. We didn’t cash in, but like I said, there were positives at the time. We’ve got to get better.”