There will be a high of 16 degrees Thursday in Blaine, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, and a low of 10 to complement the seasonal hazard of a thin layer of leftover snow.
That doesn’t mean Panthers center Nick Bjugstad is expecting anything but the warmest of welcomes despite the temperature when he returns to his hometown to face the Wild and start a crucial eight-game stretch that could define the playoff push for the Panthers, who have 59 points and sit ninth in the Eastern Conference.
More than 150 friends and family members are expected to greet Bjugstad at the Xcel Energy Center, the same building where he carved a name for himself with years of amateur performances.
“That’s part of the folklore of the high school state tournament,” said Dave Aus, Bjugstad’s coach at Blaine and now coach at Brainerd High. “It’s the way Minnesota boys become childhood heroes.”
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Like football in Texas or basketball in Indiana, high school hockey transcends life in Minnesota.
“People that come here and see it from the first time are shocked by the enormity of it,” Aus said.
Bjugstad’s state tournament debut came in front of 18,000 people at the Xcel Center as a 14-year-old freshman. By the end of his junior year, he was named the state’s “Mr. Hockey,” affirming his place at the peak of the area’s more beloved pastime. Staying home for college at the University of Minnesota cemented his legacy. Now he returns a breakout NHL star, the Panthers’ $24 million man and points leader.
“I didn’t have any players come through in my 14 years there that had that amount of skill,” Aus said.
Many with Bjugstad’s potential at that age leave for Ann Arbor, Michigan, to train at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. But Bjugstad thought that the wealth of Minnesota talent surrounding him was enough to help him develop. His father, Mike, and uncle, Scott, brought college and NHL experience and guidance. Scott played nine seasons in the NHL.
“I wanted to stay home and I figured if you’re good enough you’ll be able to make it if you work hard,” Bjugstad said. “[Minnesota] is the closest thing to Canada, in my opinion, in the United States.”
The numbers back that up.
Historically, almost 24 percent of the NHL’s 986 U.S.-born players were born in Minnesota. And thanks to an influx of young talent, Minnesota is currently the most well-represented state in the league. At 35 players, Minnesota sits ahead of second-place New York by nine, according to hockey-reference.com.
Brock Nelson, Andres Lee and Nick Leddy, now all with the New York Islanders, lead a laundry list of Bjugstad’s peers to make the NHL.
Bjugstad especially remembers a semifinal loss at Xcel to Eden Prairie High and Leddy, his future college teammate at Minnesota. Years later in the same building, the two teamed up to beat North Dakota and punch a ticket to the Frozen Four.
In his only NHL return to Minneapolis, Bjugstad registered an assist in a 3-2 Panthers loss in November 2013. He had just three career goals at that point. But he has blossomed since, finishing with 38 points in 2013-14 and 33 so far this season.
His continued emergence could prove paramount in whether the Panthers can catch eighth-place Boston, which leads Florida by four points. Seven of the Panthers’ next eight games will be away. But on Thursday, their brightest young star will be right at home.
“Excited for some good home cooking,” Bjugstad said. “If I could, I’d go watch my cousin play high school hockey.”
Florida’s power play, just a few weeks removed from being at the bottom of the league, has been on a tear since the All-Star break.
The Panthers now run with four forwards and one defenseman, and the results have been pretty good.
Florida had three power-play goals in Tuesday’s 6-2 win over Anaheim — only the second time that has happened this season with both occasions coming after the All-Star Game.
Florida has eight power-play goals in its past eight games after scoring 17 in the first 44.
Miami Herald sportswriter George Richards contributed to this report.
Thursday: Panthers at Wild
When, where: 8 p.m.; Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Minnesota leads 11-4-1
Noteworthy: Minnesota has won six of seven to get back in the playoff race and beat the Panthers 4-1 in November, Florida has won just once in seven trips to visit the Wild.