“We’ve always been close since the beginning,” Huberdeau said of Bjugstad, who made his NHL debut at the tail end of Huberdeau’s rookie season in 2012-13. “I was his roommate for a long time. We’d always hang out together on the road, too. We kind of grew together in this organization. It was obviously hard to see him leave when he left, but it’s part of hockey.”
Bjugstad and Jared McCann were shipped to the Penguins on Feb. 1 in exchange for Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and three valuable draft picks. Bjugstad and McCann are expected to both receive very warm welcomes from the home fans and former teammates in their return.
But with the Panthers in dire need of two points, Huberdeau said they can’t get too sentimental.
“It’s going to be a little weird obviously,” said Huberdeau, who is tied with Aleksander Barkov for the team scoring lead with 50 points. “I played with these guys a long time, especially Bjugy… I’m just going to try to play hard. There’s no really friends out there. Of course we’re going to say ‘Hi,’ probably, on the ice, but after that we’ve got to play the game and win the game.”
Vincent Trocheck said he paid a visit to Bjugstad’s Fort Lauderdale home last night after the Penguins arrived in town. Teammates since the 2013-14 season, Trocheck said that it’ll be “pretty funny” to go head-to-head with Bjugstad, citing the “funny characteristics” of his game.
“Playing with a guy like that for six years, you become pretty close,” Trocheck said of Bjugstad, a first-round pick in 2010 who suited up in 394 career regular-season games with the Panthers. “Obviously any time I get a chance to talk to him, I’m going to do that. He’s become a real good friend of mine… He’s obviously one of the nicest guys I’ve ever played with.”
But, like Huberdeau, Trocheck knows that tonight’s game won’t be about which team is nicer than the other. With 31 games left to play, Florida currently sits at 21-22-8 on the season, which places them 11 points behind Columbus for the second wild card spot with one game in hand.
The Panthers have won four of their last six games, but are coming off a 3-2 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday in which the Blues scored three unanswered goals in the third period to stun Florida.
“I think at this point we kind of just have to get rid of any thinking about playing a full 60 minutes and just go out there and play, have fun and play our game,” Trocheck said. “We start games, we come out flying, we score a couple goals. That’s when we’re playing our game and having fun. Then it kind of seems like we sit back, think about it a little bit. We think about playing with a lead, protecting that lead, playing defense a little bit more. I think that’s what’s kind of hurting us right now. We’re sitting back on our heels a little too much instead of playing full throttle.”
In looking at what the Panthers received for Bjugstad and McCann, both Brassard and Sheahan have been earning rave reviews from teammates and coaches. Put in ideal roles – Brassard on the right side of the second line and Sheahan in the same spot on the third – the duo has been contributing on both special teams units and at 5-on-5, combing for one assist in two games.
“I really like Brass’ skillset. I think he can play with top lines and help them out,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “Riley’s been a guy, again it’s only been two games, but his first game was pretty impressive with how heavy he was on pucks and, obviously, his penalty killing… They’ve had a little bit of a calming effect, and their experience shows.”
Playing 54 games over parts of two seasons with the Penguins, Brassard said he’s far more focused more on winning the game tonight than any of the storylines surrounding the fact that he’s facing down his former team, even if the very quick reunion is admittedly a little bit weird.
“I’m just trying to stay focused on what I have to do,” Brassard said. “My main focus is on this team right now. I have to play good. That’s what I have to focus on… We know how they play, but at the end of the day we have to execute our system… We have to play our game.”
Like Brassard, Sheahan said the duo’s familiarity with Pittsburgh could help Florida tonight.
“System-wise, you know what to expect,” said Sheahan, who suited up in 122 games with the Penguins over parts of two seasons. “Penalty killing and things like that, you’ve faced off against it a lot in practice and saw a lot of video on it and played the system, so it definitely helps.”
Pittsburgh (28-19-6) has lost four of its last six games, including a 4-0 loss against Carolina on Tuesday. Evgeni Malkin, who ranks third on the team with 55 points, could miss tonight’s game while recovering from an upper-body injury. Whether he does play or not, however, there is talk that Bjugstad could be deployed as the club’s top-line right winger alongside Sidney Crosby.
Crosby leads the Penguins in points (61) while Jake Guentzel has the most goals (26).
“It’s got to be about us and how we’re going to compete,” Boughner said. “You’re going to play games where you play great, you left it all out there and for whatever reason you didn’t win. But when you beat yourself, it’s disappointing. It’s time to respond… It’s obviously going to be an emotional game for our team and their team for the trades and everything like that.”
— Aleksander Barkov ranks tied for first on the Panthers in points (50), including four goals and seven assists over his last 13 games. The 23-year-old captain ranks third in the NHL in takeaways (70), while his 22:56 of average ice time per game paces all forwards.
— Mike Hoffman leads Florida in goals (24), power-play goals (10) and shots on goal (165). The 29-year-old winger needs just six more goals to surpass his single-season career-high for goals (29, 2015-16) and achieve the first 30-goal campaign of his NHL career.
— Frank Vatrano leads the Panthers in goals (6), points (10) and shots on goal (37) over the last 11 games. The 24-year-old winger also leads the team with 16 even-strength goals this season, while pacing all forwards with 45 blocked shots.
— Entering tonight with the second-ranked power play in the NHL (27 percent), the Panthers have registered at least one goal with the extra attacker in 31 of their last 42 games. Keith Yandle leads the team with 26 power-play points, which is also tied for fourth-most in the NHL.
— Florida has gone 30-for-32 (93.8 percent) on the penalty kill over the last 15 games.
GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME
Roberto Luongo (10-12-1, 3.17 GAA, .895 SV%) vs. Casey DeSmith (13-9-4, 2.69 GAA, .918 SV%)
After backing up James Reimer in each of the last two games, Luongo be between the pipes for the Panthers for the first time since Feb. 1. The 39-year-old has won two of his last three starts, allowing just six combined goals and owning a .920 save percentage in that span. In his career against the Penguins, he’s gone 15-11-5 record with a .904 save percentage and four shutouts.
With starter Matt Murray sidelined with an upper-body injury, the Penguins are expected to turn to DeSmith against the Panthers. The 27-year-old backup has been handed a loss in three of his last four starts, surrendering 17 combined goals in those outings. In the midst of his second season in the NHL, the undrafted goaltender has yet to start a game against Florida.
Frank Vatrano – Aleksander Barkov – Evgenii Dadonov
Jonathan Huberdeau – Vincent Trocheck – Derick Brassard
Mike Hoffman – Henrik Borgstrom – Riley Sheahan
Troy Brouwer – Denis Malgin – Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle – Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson – Mark Pysyk
Ian McCoshen – Josh Brown
Scratches: Micheal Haley, Jayce Hawryluk (lower body), MacKenzie Weegar
Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder)
– Feb. 1: F Jamie McGinn was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
– Feb. 1: The Panthers acquired F Derick Brassard, F Riley Sheahan, 2019 2nd-round pick and two 2019 4th-round picks from Pittsburgh in exchange for F Nick Bjugstad and F Jared McCann
– Jan. 31: F Jayce Hawryluk, D Josh Brown, D Ian McCoshen were recalled from Springfield (AHL)
– Jan. 31: D Bogdan Kiselevich was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
– 50/50 Raffle (buy digital tickets here)
– $5 Beer Thursday
BITE OF BB&T CENTER
Carne Asada Tacos for $14 at “Taco’ Bout It” stands outside sections 129 and 307
HOW TO WATCH
When: Thursday, Feb. 7, 7:00 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center – Sunrise, FL
TV: Fox Sports Florida (Alternate Channels Below)
Dish HD: 9515
Dish Hopper: 412-33
DTV HD: 654-1 AT&T: 721
AT&T HD: 1721
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)