Months before the Panthers routed Montreal, 5-0, on Thursday night, in the hockey rinks of summertime Minnesota, surrounded by a slew of other NHL players and freed to bury a forgettable season in Florida, Nick Bjugstad regained his form.
He slimmed down. He sped up. He inched over the injury hill. He was more productive in Minnesota's Da Beauty summer league than he was with the Panthers the season prior.
Bjugstad was once the pearl of the Panthers franchise, the massive first-round power forward with a scoring touch. He was the building block to stack the team on. He was the team's leading scorer and most dangerous player in front of the net.
That version on Bjugstad disappeared in 2016-17, when he picked up just seven goals and seven assists in an injury-shortened 54-game season. That version may be back, tweaked slightly.
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With another goal on Thursday night, Bjugstad pushed his season total to 15 goals as he followed up his first career hat trick on Tuesday night by finding the back of the net again. Bjugstad's goal helped the Panthers extend their point-streak to eight and gave Florida its 14th win in the last 18 games.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Micheal Haley, Evgenii Dadonov and Vincent Trocheck also scored goals as Roberto Luongo made 40 saves in the Panthers' seventh consecutive home win. It was Luongo's second shutout of the season.
The Panthers closed to within one point of Columbus in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Florida has still played the fewest games in the NHL, three less than the Blue Jackets.
Bjugstad's goal gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead just 1:41 into the second period, padding the cushion over the miserable and limping Canadiens, who were without their top goalie (Carey Price), defenseman (Shea Weber) and forward (Max Pacioretty).
Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov led a 2-on-2 break out of the Panthers' zone and Barkov carried over the blue line. Bjugstad shrugged off contact to dive towards the goal. Barkov found him and then Bjugstad took a page out of Barkov's book, beating Montreal goalie Charlie Lindgren with a pretty backhand.
The tally gave Bjugstad four goals in two games for the first time in his career. He scored in back-to-back games for the third time this season, a feat he did just once in his disappointing season last year. Bjugstad is just four points from tying his career high with 43 points and he's transformed his game from the lumbering, 6-foot-6 center he used to be.
Panthers coach Bob Boughner shifted Bjugstad to wing almost exclusively this season – Bjugstad's only played five games at center. At wing, Bjugstad's load is lessened on the defensive side of the puck, where he's no longer required to battle below the goalline or take faceoffs. He can focus on his offense more.
With his newfound speed and released from the third-line center role, Bjugstad has also been playing with more skilled linemates. For the last 19 games, he's played with Barkov, one of the best all-around players in the league. He can hide Bjugstad's defensive shortcomings and extenuate his offensive repertoire.
Playing on Florida's top line, Bjugstad has points in 13 of his last 17 games, including his last five. He's become more of a passer, and has already set a career high with 24 assists this season.
The Panthers also benefitted from a pair of reviews on Thursday night.
About midway through the first period, Luongo made a glove save on Nicolas Deslauriers' shot, his glove on – if not over – the goalline. But officials could not tell conclusively if the puck crossed the line. They ruled no goal.
In the third period, Paul Byron stuffed in a rebound that appeared to break the shutout. Boughner challenged the play for goaltender interference as Jacob de la Rose bumped Luongo's head as Byron squeezed the puck by.
The challenge was a lottery ticket for the Panthers, with officials around the league ruling the play differently and inconsistently. Florida cashed in, and officials waived off the goal.