Ex-Gopher Schmidt gets big shot in the NHL with Caps

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2013 - 7:52 AM

After 14 games in the minors, undrafted Nate Schmidt is skating on Washington’s top defensive pair.

– It’s become a fixture at Capitals home games at Verizon Center.

In an effort to pump up the crowd late in games, comedian Tom Green appears on a video compilation on the scoreboard wearing a Caps jersey and shouts “Unleash the Fury!” — his signature line from the movie “Road Trip.”

As the crowd screamed the line with Green on Saturday night as the Capitals faced the Florida Panthers, defenseman Nate Schmidt — the St. Cloud native already playing on Washington’s top defense pair after 14 games of minor league experience — stared across the ice at former Gophers teammate Nick Bjugstad.

“The place got really loud, I looked at Bjugy and started thinking, ‘Six, seven months ago, we’re skating to the same side of the faceoff dot at Mariucci Arena and now he’s skating on the opposite side of me at the Verizon Center.

“I looked at him and we’re both donning different NHL jerseys. I had this, ‘Wow, this really happened’ moment.”

And then Schmidt took his wet, smelly glove and smothered it across Bjugstad’s face. It’s true, coming at the tail end of a scrum in front of the Washington net.

“I knew it was him. I don’t think he knew it was me until the very end,” Schmidt said, laughing hysterically. “[Teammate Mike Green] grabbed on to him and when I saw Bjugy, to be totally honest, I faced-washed him just to kind of let him know I was there. He was angry, looked up, saw it was me and just grabbed on to give me the business.”

Schmidt, a happy-go-lucky 22-year-old with a bubbly personality, can’t believe how quickly he has arrived in the NHL. Undrafted, Schmidt signed with the Capitals in April and played 13 games for Hershey of the AHL. This season, he scored one goal in one game for Hershey before being recalled by the Caps for his NHL debut.

Eleven games later, Schmidt, who wears No. 88, still shares a locker room with superstar Alex Ovechkin and skates almost 19 minutes a night alongside Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist.

Schmidt has three assists, 18 shots and is plus-1 going into Thursday’s game vs. his hometown Wild.

“You always have faith that what you’re doing is right, but I don’t know if I ever thought I’d be here this quick,” said Schmidt, who still lives in a hotel. “It’s been an awesome ride so far, but I can’t get too excited.”

As a Gophers freshman, Schmidt played only 13 games, bouncing between the blue line and forward. But Schmidt erupted as a sophomore, coinciding with associate head coach Mike Guentzel’s return to the program after three years away.

Guentzel recruited Schmidt to the U and Schmidt responded by being the nation’s second-highest scoring defenseman with 41 points in 43 games. As a junior, Schmidt scored 32 points, ranking third among defensemen in the nation.

“He’s got an unbelievable desire to learn and get better,” Guentzel said. “Nate wanted coaching. He wanted instruction. He wanted accountability. He set the bar for our defense for two years. He was our hardest worker, and like all great defensemen I’ve had, he has a low-panic point.

“He slows the game down, sees everything, processes it and makes a play, whether it’s shooting or passing.”

Schmidt credits Guentzel and Gophers coach Don Lucia for the opportunity they gave him, and “I just kind of ran with it. It’s kind of like what I’m trying to do here. I just want to run with this opportunity as far as I can take it. I really don’t have anything to lose. I’m playing with house money, as they say.

“I’m learning a lot, having a blast and having the confidence to make plays. That’s what I’ve learned the most. Not every NHL guy has zero percent body fat and pulsating muscles. It’s all about the player — the head, being smart and confident. That’s the biggest part to success.”

Schmidt remembers four years ago how devastated he was not to be drafted. Now he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him because he was able to choose his team.

“I got to peer up and down depth charts, see where I’d have the best opportunity and where I’d feel most comfortable,” he said. “It’s kind of like getting recruited to college all over again.

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