Zenon Konopka joined his sixth NHL team Saturday night but it was a big deal for the native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The Buffalo Sabres have always been his favorite.
“It was a little surreal at first because you watch so many Sabres games as a kid and now you’re part of it,” Konopka said after the 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. “But it was a lot of fun.”
When Konopka was waived Thursday by the Minnesota Wild, he knew the Sabres would have first dibs. And as much as he loved Minnesota, he was thrilled when the word came down Friday that he had been claimed. He had pondered the possibility.
“That was the first thing that went through my mind,” Konopka said. “Obviously I was a little surprised. Everything happens for a reason in life. I’m super excited.”
Konopka played 11 minutes, 37 seconds in the game, mostly on the fourth line between Matt Ellis and John Scott. He had one shot on goal, blocked two shots, had two hits and went 9-11 on faceoffs.
Konopka, who regularly attended games at Memorial Auditorium, told reporters Saturday of days gone by sitting in the oranges and said Gilbert Perreault was his favorite player.
“Growing up here watching the Sabres in the Auditorium was just amazing. You always kind of dreamt of being a Buffalo Sabre,” he said. “My mom was born in buffalo. My aunt’s here, grandparents were here. I’m looking forward of being part of the community and team and being part of the solution.”
He said he would have plenty of family and friends in the stands every night.
“One of my buddies said, ‘You’re going to be playing for free here by the time you’re done paying for tickets,’ ” Konopka said. “It’s something I want my friends and family to enjoy too.”
Konopka, one of the league’s toughest fighters, is notorious for policing the center red line during warmups and he did just that Saturday. He did his pregame stretching with his right skate on the line while eyeing Devils center Adam Henrique.
He also insists on being the last player remaining on the ice for the warmup, and attempts to fire a puck the length of the ice into the opponent’s goal (he missed Saturday).
Konopka entered the game leading all active NHL players with at least 2,000 draws in faceoff percentage at 59.6. Chicago’s Jonathan Toews was next at 56.9.
“I’m hard to play against. It’s one of those things where I pride myself on other players not wanting to play against me,” Konopka said. “Not just because of the fighting and hitting. Just overall strength.”
Konopka has uproarious Twitter and Instagram accounts often centered around a pet rabbit named Hoppy. Two fans wearing rabbit ears with a “Welcome to Buffalo Hoppy” sign were put on the jumbotron during the first period Saturday night.
Konopka put out a photo Thursday on his 33rd birthday of Hoppy presenting him a cake that said “Happy Birthday, Zenon.” What kind of cake would a rabbit give? What else? Carrot cake.
Hoppy, Konopka reported, is not yet in Buffalo. He was able to avoid the travel trouble that saw Konopka fruitlessly shuttle Friday between LaGuardia and JFK Airports in New York before he finally got to town Saturday morning.
“I should have listened to Hoppy. Hoppy is not a huge flier,” Konopka said. “He wanted to drive. So my buddy was down in MInnesota. He’s gonna chauffeur Hoppy up to Buffalo in the next couple of days and he’s pretty excited as well.”
Forward Ville Leino sat out for the second straight game with a lower-body injury, believed to be a leg or groin muscle problem.
He was injured Sunday at Washington and played three shifts Tuesday in Winnipeg. Leino hopes to play Tuesday against Carolina.
“I felt good. Hard strides, hard turns,” Leino said after a full morning skate. “We just don’t want to push it.”
Ryan Miller got big applause and waved to the crowd when the Sabres recognized him during a first-period timeout for his selection to the U.S. Olympic team.
Miller stopped 21 of 22 shots and improved to 7-3-1 in his last 11 games. He has a 1.87 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in that stretch.
Under interim coach Ted Nolan, the Sabres are 8-4-1 at home and 0-7-2 on the road. ... It was the Sabres’ first victory in their new alternate jerseys. They had been 0-3-1 in their previous four attempts – and had scored just one goal in each game. ... Linus Omark’s assist on Matt D’Agostini’s game-winning goal was his first point in seven games as a Sabre and his first in the NHL since a goal for Edmonton at Tampa Bay on March 22, 2012.