TAMPA, Fla. – It’s easy to see Cory Conacher is having a blast being an NHL rookie. His smile is present on and off the ice.
He’s making a point of spreading the joy.
During Tampa Bay’s morning skate Tuesday, the Lightning left winger skated toward the boards and spotted a young man with Down syndrome. Conacher did a couple of tricks with the puck, then picked it up, walked through the bench area and handed the man the souvenir. The fan smiled and showed it to his friend a few rows back.
Minutes later, the former Canisius College star saw a kid in the corner of the rink and flipped a puck to the boy. He smiled, too.
Yes, it’s easy to see Conacher and Tampa Bay are quite a fit.
“It’s such a nice setup here in Tampa,” Conacher said before facing the Buffalo Sabres in a game in which he assisted on the Tampa Bay goal in a 2-1 loss. “The fans are awesome. The city’s awesome. It’s just a dream. It’s been an awesome season so far.”
Friends come quickly off the ice when players do well on it. After dominating the American Hockey League last season, Conacher is proving his skills translate to the top level. He ended his night Tuesday with seven goals and 18 points in 19 games for the Lightning.
“He’s just a relentless player,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “He’s fearless. He’ll get bumped around and he’s back on his feet in a fraction of a second, back in the play, getting a shot and paying the price.
“I like relentless players. That’s my identity, so when I see somebody like that, I like working with those guys. Yeah, they’ll make some mistakes, but they’re first on the puck. They’ll pay the price to get hit, to make a play, and he does that.”
Boucher entered the season with Conacher penciled into a top-six role, and the 23-year-old quickly showed the coach he’d made a smart decision. Conacher recorded five goals and seven assists in the opening seven games. He assisted on Tampa Bay’s opening goal Tuesday to extend his points streak to six games while skating alongside All-Star center Steven Stamkos and left wing Teddy Purcell.
“Cory is so fast out there,” Stamkos said. “He’s not afraid to go in the corners, get the puck and go in front of the net. I think we all just complement each other.”
Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston is among those who pegged Conacher for big-league success. The former Rochester coach saw Conacher earn the honor of AHL Most Valuable Player last season and faced him during the lockout, too.
“He’s got great speed, he’s a really smart player, and he goes to the traffic areas,” Rolston said. “Those are three things that are deadly for offensive players, and he does them all. It was just a matter of time before he was here.”
Though the arrival was expected, it’s still surreal for Conacher. He grew up idolizing Martin St. Louis, and now he skates with him.
“It’s been such a dream for me to even be able to be in the same room as some of these guys and guys I’ve watched on TV for so long,” Conacher said.
It was a bit mind-blowing to face the Sabres, too.
A few of Conacher’s teammates at Canisius had season tickets in Buffalo, so he would often join them at First Niagara Center.
“It’s just like I’m at a Buffalo Sabres game almost, but I’m playing in it,” Conacher said. “I’ve already got some text messages from people I went to school with to try and take it easy on Buffalo a little bit.”
Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold missed his fourth straight game, including his third with an upper-body injury. He joined his teammates toward the end of the morning skate but wore just a baseball cap and sweatsuit.
“He’s getting better,” Rolston said. “He’s starting to get some exercise in and move. Each day is a better sign, but it’s still a day-to-day process for him.”
The return of Adam Pardy from Rochester forced Rolston to change his defense pairings. Pardy skated alongside Mike Weber, Robyn Regehr started next to Andrej Sekera, and Christian Ehrhoff partnered with Tyler Myers.