It’s one thing to play hockey at Canisius College, even as it’s a program on the rise. It’s one thing to become a most valuable player in the American Hockey League. And it’s another thing entirely to make an impact in the NHL and became a desired target at the trade deadline.
Cory Conacher has rolled all that into two years time. The former Griffs star was the AHL MVP last year at Norfolk as the Admirals won the Calder Cup and, after a strong stint this year at Syracuse during the lockout, graduated to Tampa Bay and became one of the NHL’s top rookies.
So what was he doing in First Niagara Center on Friday night? It’s all part of the ride.
“It’s always tough to leave the place you started and Tampa did a lot of good things for me,” Conacher said after taking a pregame skate for the first time with his new team, the Ottawa Senators. “I have to give them a lot of credit for the success I’ve had so far this year. At the same time Ottawa is a team on the rise and they’ve been finding ways to win with all the injuries they’ve had this year. They have a lot of young guys and it will be a fun experience for me to play on a Canadian team, to be close to home.
“It’s been a dream season so far. To be able to play with a guy like [Tampa veteran] Marty St. Louis, a guy I idolized forever, who I called out in road hockey or ministick games to be him as a player, he’s done it all.”
Conacher was a surprise trade piece at the deadline, as the Lightning sent him north for goaltender Ben Bishop. With nine goals and 24 points, only 5-foot-8 and 179 pounds, Conacher is second in NHL scoring among rookies and instantly became Ottawa’s scoring leader.
Sens coach Paul MacLean has Conacher on an all-rookie line with Mika Zibanajed and Jakob Silfverberg and said he’s liked what he saw in practice from Conacher, who played 13:57 Friday and was plus-2 as his line set up both Ottawa goals.
“Our expectation is he’s going to come in and make us a better team. We’ll make sure we get him on the ice lots,” MacLean said. “He’s got a good skill set, quick mind, quick hands. He’s good around the net, good with the puck. He seems to be diligent enough without it so we’re looking forward to seeing him play.”
So were plenty of Conacher’s family and friends, especially the ones with ties to Canisius. The problem? They all had their tickets in hand for Tampa’s lone visit here this year on April 14. Conacher’s parents had a suite for the game and the Sabres were planning to honor the Canisius team for its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The trade left lots of people in scramble mode trying to exchange tickets or rearrange schedules. Many of Conacher’s friends are on spring break and weren’t in the house Friday. Neither was Canisius coach Dave Smith, who was in San Jose with his daughter at a youth tournament. But Conacher said he often has texted Smith since the trade.
“He gave me his immediate impact on the trade,” Conacher said. “He took me back to the day he got traded [in the International Hockey League] and just how to handle things. Find the positives out of it. He’s excited for me and wishes he could be here. He’s a guy I can talk to about anything. I texted him a lot this season.”
Conacher said he was at a Lightning team dinner at St. Louis’ house during the Canisius-Quinnipiac NCAA game last Saturday in Providence, R.I. The Griffs had a 3-1 third-period lead but lost, 4-3.
“I was following it on Twitter. It’s unfortunate that Quinnipiac made the comeback,” Conacher said. “But you have to give a lot of credit to Canisius for what they did.”
Conacher is thrilled to be playing in a city closer to his home in Burlington, Ont., although his home debut in Ottawa won’t come until April 16 as the Sens played game two of a seven-game trip Friday that will include a matchup with his old team Tuesday in Tampa.
Conacher knows Sabres fans, including many of his old Canisius buddies, have no soft spots for the Sens in the wake of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. But he’s hoping they’ll let bygones be bygones at least a little.
“They’re Buffalo fans but at the odd time they can cheer for the Ottawa team too,” Conacher said. “It’s nice to have that little bit of support. They can say, ‘I wouldn’t mind if Buffalo wins but you get three goals.’ ”