Because he has the bloodlines and the size, the smooth skating stride and the lethal shot, it’s easy to look at Nick Bjugstad and say, “There’s a natural born hockey player.”
While that might be true, more than genetics have been involved in the creation of Bjugstad’s considerable game.
Matter of fact, the Blaine superstar has donated some sweat to the cause, too. There’s been a teen-ager's lifetime’s worth of hard days’ workouts and short nights’ rest invested in this story. Not to mentiona all those elite-level practices and games in far flung locations during an “offseason” schedule that’s more jammed the runways at JFK.
So when Bjugstad has the sort of game he did against Maple Grove in the Section 5AA championship on Friday, March 5, at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum -- scoring twice in the final period to lift the Bengals to a 3-1 victory -- there’s no telling how many hours went into the crafting of yet another jaw-dropping performance.
For sure, though, we know another 120 minutes of preparation can be added to Bjugstad’s ledger. He devoted a chunk of his Thursday evening to work with his uncle, former Minnesota North Star Scott Bjugstad, on his shot.
“I was practicing going upper shelf,” Bjugstad said. “My uncle told me you have to go high on this guy because he is really good down low.”
“This guy” would be Maple Grove standout goaltender Ryan Coyne. And if Coyne saw either of Bjugstad’s missiles that turned a 1-1 nailbiter into a Bengals runaway, it’s doubtful Coyne could have stopped them anyway.
“He scores on me all the time in practice,” said Bengals goaltender Danny Harper, who happens to be one of the best at his trade in the state. “High blocker. I know what’s coming. He cuts across, I still can’t get there. He beats me every time.”
The score was 1-1 heading into the third period, and with Bjugstad playing every other shift it was clear who the No. 1-seeded Bengals were counting on to lead them to a fifth straight state tournament appearance.
“That’s him,” Harper said. “When we need a big goal, we know who to turn to -- Mr. Hockey, Nick Bjugstad.”
Sure enough, Bjugstad took a pass from Eric Scheid from behind the net, and with no hesitation fired the puck short side and high over Coyne. The next goal, with the Bengals on a power play, was altogether different. Bjugstad grabbed the puck along the boards and skated around, then through, the Maple Grove penalty-killers’ box before unloading a cannon from the high slot. The puck sailed over Coyne’s catching glove, just the way the Bjugstads drew it up the night before while working out on the artificial ice in uncle Scott’s pole barn.
“I’ve seen him so many times drive out of the corner, get a step, and then just boom, it’s in the back of the net so quick,” Blaine coach Dave Aus said about Bjugstad’s second goal. “He’s had a couple of shots this year where it’s not so much the placement, but the velocity off the stick is just tremendous.”
One of 10 Mr. Hockey finalists, Bjugstad is a junior who has been taking accelerated classes that will allow him to graduate a year early. He’s committed to play for Minnesota, and he’ll likely be a first-round draft pick in this year’s NHL draft.
“It’s tough,” Maple Grove coach Gary Stefano said about trying to keep Bjugstad in check. “We’ve been trying to do it for three years now. When he gets that puck on his stick, you’ve got to be on him. It seems like somehow, the goal scorers score goals.
“And he can shoot.”
Blaine's power play, one the state's most high-powered as evidenced by its 40-percent success rate, cashed in on one of two opportunities in the second period. Eric Scheid scored the goal after Nick Bjugstad walked the puck down the slot and appeared to lose control. Scheid, stationed to the right of the Maple Grove goaltender Ryan Coyne, alertly banged the loose puck into the net.
Looking for more
With time running down in the second period, Bjugstad was knocked to the ice by a Maple Grove defenseman as he crossed the blue line into the Crimson zone. Blaine coach Dave Aus raised his arms in the air, looking for a penalty call that never came. Bjugstad then chatted with the officials briefly before leaving the ice.
Emptying the tank
After playing the bulk of the Bengals’ victory over Maple Grove, a clearly drained Bjugstad had difficulty producing words to describe the Blaine’s victory or his emotions. “Sorry, I’m losing my voice,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to yell on the bench, not yelling at the guys but just bringing the guys up and keeping them in the game.” Bjugstad did manage, in raspy, cracking tones, to summarize his emotions of reaching the state tournament for the third time in his brilliant career. “I was hoping for one year,” he said. “A lot of guys, a lot of good players, don’t ever make it. And fortunately we’ve made it three years in a row. It’s definitely surreal right now, I’m physically exhausted right now. I don’t think it will hit me until tomorrow that we are going to the state tournament.”
1. Nick Bjugstad, Blaine
Hmmmm. Can we make Bjugstad the second and third stars, too? Blaine's Mr. Hockey finalist took over in the third period, scoring twice in the final session to break a 1-1 tie and propel the Bengals to the Xcel Energy center.
2. Eric Scheid, Blaine
He scored the Bengal's first goal on a power play then set up Bjugstad for the game winner early in the third, firing a nifty pass from behind the net.
3. Ryan Coyne, Maple Grove
The Crimson's junior goaltender (pictured below) was his usual, solid self and a big reason why the game stayed deadlocked through two periods. He finished with 22 saves.