Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher is still trying to wrap his brain around the reality of his newfound fantasy world that is precisely how this sentence reads, a little weird.
Two years ago, Conacher was driving to Buffalo State for practice and sharing a dressing room with the likes of Torrey Lindsay and Preston Shupe at Canisius College. Nothing against the two senior forwards, but they’re not exactly the same caliber of players surrounding Conacher these days on the Tampa Bay Lighting.
“Just walking into the room sometimes, it’s still like, ‘Wow, is that really Martin St. Louis and [Vincent] Lecavalier?’ ” Conacher said from Tampa last week. “It really is amazing. It’s a dream come true. At the same time, I try not to act too nervous and too starstruck around them. But, yeah, it’s incredible.”
Rather incredible, indeed.
Conacher used the word a few times, for good reason. He scored against Washington in his NHL debut, had two assists in his second game and netted the winner in his third. He was named first star after setting up one goal and scoring another in a win over Florida. Friday he scored twice and had an assist against Winnipeg, giving him five goals and 12 points in seven games with the Bolts.
Obviously, he hasn’t played like a rookie. He jumped atop the NHL rookie scoring lead and already is in the conversation for the Calder Trophy. He is the first Canisius player to appear in an NHL game and the first Atlantic Hockey Association player to score an NHL goal.
Both happened after he pulled his No. 89 sweater over his head for the season opener and delivered a debut to remember.
Conacher helped set up a power-play goal for St. Louis, his boyhood idol, for his first NHL point. He scored his first goal after flying down the left wing on a two-on-one and roofing a cross-ice pass from Teddy Purcell. He celebrated by jumping into the glass behind the net with his parents, grandfather, uncle and older brother in the stands.
“They jumped out of their seats and hugged and celebrated — probably over-celebrated,” Conacher said. “The ‘wow’ factor was definitely there. The only thing that was going through my head was, ‘Wow, did I really score in the NHL?’ It was an awesome start. It was nice to be able to do that in front of them. It was just a dream come true.”
Conacher already has earned a nickname, too: Honey Badger. The moniker is a compliment to his grit and hunger.
All this two years after the 5-foot-8, 178-pound center began a mission to prove there was plenty of room for undrafted, pint-sized forwards in the NHL. The Lightning knew as much as any team in the league. St. Louis was the same size and had similar skill when he signed as a free agent after he was left unprotected and was unclaimed in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft. He played parts of two seasons for Calgary after a four-year career at the University of Vermont.
Clearly, size didn’t matter to St. Louis. He led the NHL in scoring and was named Most Valuable Player in 2004 while leading the Bolts to the Stanley Cup. He has been their most productive player over the past decade, has played in six all-star games and can build a strong case to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Conacher, 23, emulated St. Louis while growing up in Burlington, Ont., where he played against Markham star Steven Stamkos. Conacher has played mostly on a line with Lecavalier and Purcell with the Lightning, but he has been given spot duty with St. Louis and Stamkos. He’s also a regular on the power play.
Yeah, it’s a little surreal.
“I still get starstruck, sometimes,” Conacher said. “I try not to think about it too much because I don’t want to take it off my game. I’m sure I’ll be sitting here in the summer and take a look back on the season. Hopefully, I can finish here, and we can make a long playoff run. We’re just trying to build a nice family here.”
For anyone to suggest they knew with certainty he would land in the NHL two years later would have been lucky or lying. Scouts from most Division I colleges overlooked his hands, speed and hockey IQ and dismissed him based on his stature. He spent the next four years trying to prove them wrong while evolving into an elite player.
In fact, there was no way of knowing how his career would unfold until he played with and against better players. His stock soared last year when he led AHL Norfolk with 39 goals and 80 points, enough for him to be named AHL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. He carried his success into this season.
Now, he’s found an NHL home in Tampa, which is a long way from Atlantic Hockey, Canisius and Buffalo. Barring a total collapse, he’ll be back when the Bolts visit the Sabres in April. He was anxious to visit former coach Dave Smith and see his old teammates. Much has changed in the past two years.
You might say it’s incredible.
Whether it was a result of the lockout, age or making headlines from the wrong reasons, Patrick Kane sounded like he had a recent attitude adjustment. You can only wonder if his newfound perspective contributed to a strong start that included three goals and 11 points in his first eight games. He had a career-low 66 points last season.
“I’m just trying to take it to the next level, trying to be more focused whether it’s off the ice or on the ice and just enjoy playing hockey,” Kane told reporters in Chicago. “It’s something I’ve always loved to do. It seems like the first five years of my career have gone by pretty quick. I just want to savor it all.”
Is he finally maturing at age 24? We’ll see.
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews seemed to be only half-kidding when talking about a clause in the new CBA that allows veterans to have their own rooms on the road. He and Kane were roommates.
“It was five long years with ‘88’ over there,” Toews said with a laugh. “I think we’re both more than happy to part ways. We had some great memories and some bad ones.”
Sens deal with big loss
The Senators weren’t looking to make any drastic moves with center Jason Spezza sidelined for two months with a herniated disk. He was scheduled for surgery Friday after laboring through a shootout loss to Pittsburgh last weekend.
Spezza was coming off a terrific season in which he had 34 goals and 84 points, his best year since 34 goals and 92 points in 2007-08. His absence could be a devastating blow to the Senators, but they’re not whining. They improved to 5-1-1 after blowing out Montreal without their star and getting goals from five different players.
Ottawa’s first move was calling up Mika Zibanejad, the sixth pick overall in 2011, from AHL Binghamton. The 19-year-old from Sweden scored his first NHL goal against the Habs and was named one of the three stars in each of his first two games. Goaltender Craig Anderson stopped 178 of 184 shots in his first six games.
“The way we’re putting up with the injury is goal scoring by committee,” Sens coach Paul MacLean said. “We’re going to have to be that hard-working team that grinds out some goals. We did that [Wednesday]. We have to continue to do it.”
Oilers rookie Nail Yakupov was criticized for over-cooking his tying goal against the Kings when he celebrated with a lengthy slide. Some would argue it was spontaneous combustion from a 19-year-old. Alex Ovechkin had similar antics during his rookie year, and it was a breath a fresh air.
Now if it continues …
“I didn’t plan this, it just came into my head,” said Yakupov, who is playing left wing on the second line. “I’m not a crazy hockey player.”
Said goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who was pulled for the extra attacker that led to Yakupov’s goal: “I thought he might slide all the way into our empty net.”
Leafs’ deals help Bruins
It must have been tough for Leafs fans to watch the game Saturday and see Tuukka Rask, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton playing big roles for the Bruins. All three had connections to Toronto from past trades.
Rask was part of a swap that sent Andrew Raycroft to the Leafs. Seguin and Hamilton were taken in the draft with picks obtained in the Phil Kessel deal. Hamilton, 19, already looks like the real deal along the Bruins’ blue line. The 6-5 defenseman was paired with Zdeno Chara, giving them twin towers of terror.
“He’s got all the tools to develop into a Norris Trophy candidate,” said Chara, a Norris Trophy winner.
Kessel has hardly been a bust. He had three 30-goal seasons with the Leafs, who were desperate for scoring when they acquired him. He failed to score in his first seven games despite leading the Leafs with 33 shots going into Saturday night.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is making sure, with the 48-game season, that he doesn’t spend too much time obsessing over mistakes made in games that lead to sloppy performances. In any other year, Hitchcock would have bawled out his players and their parents after the Blues gave up a three-on-none. After it happened early in the season in a loss to Chicago, he basically looked the other way and moved forward. The loss to the Blackhawks was their only defeat in the first six games.
“You’ve got to be realistic that the score on the scorecard matters more than the way you play the game right now,” Hitchcock said. “We’re trying not to overreact to some of the bizarre things we see in a hockey game. You’ve just got to burn segments of the tape and don’t worry about it. … If you overreact to that, you freeze them up to everything else.”
A tale for the birds
Pierre-Cedric Lebrie didn’t need a tall fishing tale when a pelican brief was better.
The Lightning winger was fishing with teammates in Tampa Bay last week when he caught a pelican in pursuit of his bait. Thirty minutes later, after reeling the petrified pelican into the boat, Lebrie untangled the bird and released it back to freedom.
“When we let it go, we gave him a couple of sardines,” Labrie said. “He was feeling shame. His head was down and he was exhausted.”
Edmonton center Eric Belanger, 35, on the choice of music being played in the dressing room by his younger teammates: “I’ve got a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old, and in the car all they want to listen to is Justin Bieber. Then, I walk into our room and I get more Bieber.”
Around the boards
• P.K. Subban ended his contract dispute when he signed a two-year deal worth $5.75 million with the Canadiens. The key to the deal was the $3.75 million he’ll pocket in the second year, which falls in line with the money he was seeking on a long-term deal. If he stays healthy, he’ll command more than $4 million a year in 2014-15.
• The Wild already like what they have in rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin, who has been paired with newcomer Ryan Suter. Brodin, 19, weighs only 170 pounds, but he’s loaded with speed, skill and poise along the blue line.
• After taking a stick to the eye, Todd Bertuzzi told Detroit reporters that face shields should be mandatory, then he quickly backed off, saying “I don’t ask you what pencil you like to use. I’m not trying to be a jerk. It’s just the way it is. It’s our office, and we wear what we wear.”