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Bjugstad fills a big hole at center ; Team USA needs him to score in tournament

It seemed every time Nick Bjugstad looked up, the red goal light was signaling another fine play. He was the lamp-igniting star of USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp, scoring seven times in seven games.

"I never really had a scoring streak like that, so that was different," Bjugstad said Thursday. "I'm not always the biggest goal scorer, but it was a good tournament for me."

The 18-year-old couldn't have picked a better time to turn into a sniper. Keith Allain, the head coach of the U.S. world junior team, was concerned about the youth he had at the center position. Bjugstad's performance eased any worries about whether the kid could handle one of the jobs.

"He's just been outstanding for us," said Allain, whose team closed its exhibition schedule Thursday with a 6-1 win over Norway in Jamestown.

Bjugstad is the youngest player on Team USA, but he's seen a lot lately. He buzzed through his Minnesota High School in three years so he could enroll early at the University of Minnesota. He was selected in the first round of the NHL draft by the Florida Panthers. He trained this summer with an impressive pack of professionals, including Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.

Then he terrorized goalies at the camp in Lake Placid, cementing a spot on U.S. team that begins defense of its junior gold Sunday night in HSBC Arena.

"I don't know, I was going to the net and they were going in for me. It was just one of those weeks," Bjugstad said. "That definitely benefitted me for this. Awesome timing, for sure. It gave me a lot of confidence, at least for this tournament."

His resume suggests talent goes with the confidence. He earned the Mr. Hockey Award last winter as Minnesota's top high school player, recording 34 goals and 79 points in 30 games for Blaine High. His skill combined with his 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame prompted the coaches at the University of Minnesota to suggest he get done with high school early.

"I thought I was pretty well prepared," said Bjugstad, who was slowed by mononucleosis in the fall but has two goals and four points in 13 games with the Gophers. "It's been awesome. I love the competition, a lot of bigger guys, a lot of faster guys. You've got to play to that level. Obviously, that mono slowed me down a little bit, but I'm regaining confidence."

Living in the hockey hotbed that is Minnesota has its perks. One was skating with the pros at the university, including former star Vanek.

"In the summer there were a lot of pro guys around, and he skated real good for how big he is," Vanek said. "For his size, I thought he had tremendous hands and good vision."

Bjugstad is back with players in his age group, and he's eager to compete against his peers for the junior title.

"I've obviously never been in this big of a tournament, so I'm really excited," he said. "Hopefully, we can get a gold."

On Thursday, the U.S. took a 4-0 lead after a period and coasted, and was led by Charlie Coyle's two goals.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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