New Penguins Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann recount frantic journey to lineup
Nick Bjugstad sometimes has dreams, perhaps better described as nightmares, about what it would be like being late to a hockey game.
He almost found out for real Friday night, and it wasn’t his fault.
Bjugstad and his Florida Panthers teammate Jared McCann were settling down for their game-day nap in Sunrise, Fla., when they got the call: They had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford said they wanted their most recent acquisitions to play that night against the Ottawa Senators in frigid Pittsburgh at PPG Paints Arena.
“It was a whirlwind from there,” Bjugstad said.
Off they went to the airport for the flight to Pittsburgh, not knowing if they would arrive in time for the opening faceoff at 7 p.m.
“Usually, I have my coffee and stretch,” Bjugstad said. “I didn’t have any of that today. I have dreams every once while where I’m late to game, and that is what it felt like.”
Bjugstad and McCann centered the second and third lines, Bjugstad between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust and McCann with Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist. Bjugstad assisted on the first of two goals by Rust in the Penguins’ 5-3 victory. Also, both committed penalties, McCann for slashing and Bjugstad for hooking, that led to power-play goals by the Senators.
There was one flight delay, almost leaving the Penguins short-handed after they traded Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to the Panthers and lost Evgeni Malkin to an upper-body injury earlier in the day.
“We’ll always remember that: sitting on the plane wondering if we’re going to make it,” Bjugstad said. “We can thank our pilots.”
It got to a point where the players needed to stretch and knew there wouldn’t be time before the game. So they got out of their seats and did a few groin stretches on the plane.
“There wasn’t much room, but that’s all we could do,” Bjugstad said.
In Pittsburgh, a police escort met them on the tarmac. The driver negotiated rush-hour traffic to the arena and arrived at 6:50.
“We sprinted from the car to the rink,” McCann said.
They got inside just as Jeff Jimerson was singing, “Oh Canada” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” With the game starting, they received almost no instruction from coaches.
“They didn’t have time to say anything,” Bjugstad said. “There was the anthem and a few things said on the bench. ‘Just keep it simple.’ That’s kind of what we did. You’re walking into a locker room full of very good players, and we have our Florida Panther bags. You can’t make it up. I’ll remember that one the rest of my life.”
Sullivan said there was no panic in his office.
“We knew they were going to get here,” he said after the game. “We were in contact with them the whole time, and we knew what their ETA was. It was only a matter of time. If they didn’t, we would have figured it out.”
Meanwhile, Sullivan defended Brassard, who spent less than a year in Pittsburgh and never grew accustomed to his role as a third-line center.
“To Brass’ defense, he was asked to play a role that was different than he has played in his career,” Sullivan said. “He and I have had a lot of conversations over the past year or so on trying to help him establish his game in the role that we tried to cast him in.
“He’s a very good player, make no mistake. I think our expectations were so high of him because we value how good of a player he is. It’s not like he didn’t produce or help us win.”
Sullivan said he spoke to Brassard after the trade was completed.
“I still have so much respect for Brass and the person and player that he is,” the coach said. “It’s unfortunate it didn’t work like we had all hoped.”
Note: Malkin suffered an upper-body injury in Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and is day to day, Sullivan said. He will be out for Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .