Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ Nick Bjugstad hopes Monday’s game was turning point

Panthers center Nick Bjugstad scores on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during Monday night’s shootout.
Panthers center Nick Bjugstad scores on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during Monday night’s shootout. AP

Nick Bjugstad admittedly had not been himself on the ice.

Thinking too much, he said, has led to him not playing the way to which he is accustomed.

In Friday’s 5-3 loss to St. Louis, Bjugstad found himself being demoted by coach Gerard Gallant from centering Florida’s top line with Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau to sliding down to the fourth line.

“It was a tough defensive game for me, I was kind of embarrassed after the game,” said Bjugstad, Florida’s leading goal scorer with a career-high 24 last season.

“I completely understand where Gerard was coming from, bumping me back. That’s my job to play well defensively if I’m not contributing offensively. I had a tough one, probably my worst game all year. It was good to bounce back and find a way.”

Perhaps Monday is the turning point in the 24-year-old center’s season.

During the first period, Bjugstad got in front of the net and hammered home a great feed from Alex Petrovic for a 1-0 lead.

In the shootout, he kept the Panthers going by scoring in the third round as Florida bounced back from a disastrous weekend with a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh.

When Bjugstad scored in the shootout, he crashed shoulder first into the glass, a look of relief and contentment washing over his face.

“When you’re not thinking, you can have more fun out there,” Bjugstad said. “You don’t want to hesitate, make a bad play. It took me a little while to get back into it. Hopefully, it continues.”

Two rounds after Bjugstad scored, Jussi Jokinen beat Marc-Andre Fleury and Al Montoya made a save on Matt Cullen leading to rubber rats crashing to the ice from the stands.

Bjugstad led the charge off the bench to congratulate his goalie and celebrate a much-needed win.

For Bjugstad, his first-period goal was just his third since returning Jan. 3 after missing a month with migraine issues.

The goal was his 10th of the season, giving the Panthers a league-high nine players with at least 10 goals.

“I just need to keep building myself up confidence-wise,” Bjugstad said. “It comes down to me … I’m trying to find that groove. Monday was pretty good there but I can’t go one-and-done. I have to keep contributing with so many guys out. No added pressure. With hard work, things will come.”

Gallant said the biggest thing for Bjugstad is for him to get his confidence back up because “when he gets down on himself, it’s his toughest times.”

On Monday, Bjugstad played with passion and used his size and speed to make things happen.

The Panthers hope to see a lot more of that the rest of the season.

“Bjugstad scoring that goal was a lot of pressure,” Gallant said of the shootout.

“It’s great to see. He had some tough times, some tough games. It was great to see [Monday] the way he played, the way he competed. He had some big hits.”

▪ Center Sasha Barkov (concussion) and defenseman Erik Gudbranson (upper body) didn’t practice with the team Tuesday but Gallant said they both skated hard before the session.

“They skated 45 minutes, had a real good day from what I heard,” Gallant said.

▪ Gallant said defenseman and team captain Willie Mitchell — out since Jan. 18 — is working out but isn’t currently skating because of a mysterious injury.

Mitchell was once said to be set back with primarily an ankle injury although general manager Dale Tallon is now calling it “upper body.”

Mitchell missed a month last season with what was believed to be a concussion, although the team isn’t saying whether that’s the reason why Mitchell has been out this time.

▪ Goalie Roberto Luongo took a hard shot off of his neck and hit the ice in obvious pain before skating off and going into the training room.

Tallon and Gallant said Luongo was fine, and Luongo was seen walking around with a little bruising where he was struck.

▪ Gallant said Brandon Pirri doesn’t need surgery on his injured left ankle and could return in two or three weeks.

“It’s not as bad as we thought,” he said. “It looked real bad.”

▪ Montoya became the first to earn the team’s “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt for a third time Monday after making 31 saves — not including four in the shootout — for his ninth win of the season.

Montoya, who is expected to start Thursday against San Jose, is in charge of giving it to the next recipient, although it sounds like he might keep it for himself.

“It feels good, fits my shoulders,” he said Monday night. “It makes me look bigger. I love it.”

▪ The Panthers will hold another open practice at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the IceDen in Coral Springs.

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