Zenon Konopka, whom the Tampa Bay Lightning has given a chance to play, proving doubters wrong
One of the more interesting things about the last chat I had online were several questions asking what the heck Tampa Bay Lightning coach Rick Tocchet sees in Zenon Konopka. Well, now we know.
As the anchor of the Lightning's very capable fourth line, which Tocchet said has drawn two or three penalties a game, and as someone who entering Thursday's game with the Senators had won 66.7 percent of his faceoffs, Konopka, who for the first time had an NHL job coming out of camp, is proving a valuable asset to the team.
"I've done it three or four times this year on an important draw, I've had him out there in the last minute," Tocchet said. "Sometimes you think, 'Fourth line guy, tough guy, he doesn't go on in the last five minutes of the game.' He's breaking that trend for me. I put him out there after we score a goal. I put him out there for defensive zone coverages. Knowing I have another lefty who can take draws for us is good."
Konopka has been very good, winning 20 of 30 draws; his 66.7 percent was tied for third in the league entering Thursday. That's part of a pretty good trend for the Lightning, which entered Thursday fourth in the league with a 54.8 winning percentage.
Couple of things. It has helped Tampa Bay has two great faceoff coaches in Wes Walz and Adam Oates. But Konopka said a lot of wins have come because of quick reactions by the wingers who gobble up pucks after faceoffs. And as Tocchet said:
"I've made it a premium for all five guys to be ready on draws. "It's not a rest period. Sometimes wingers rest on draws. They're more on their toes now. So, it's not just the center man. It's not just an individual thing all the time, unless you're beat clean. It's a five-man unit."
But back to Konopka, who has zero points but 19 penalty minutes and five shots in five games while averaging 7:25 of ice time.
"I love him on our bench, too," Tocchet said. "He might not play for six or seven minutes, but he's talking, he's yelling. He's keeping the guys on the bench alive. That's an intangible we didn't have last year, and he's filling that role."
The game against the Senators was a big one for Konopka, who played juniors in Ottawa for four years and won the Memorial Cup in 2001.
"This is pretty close to my home as well," said Konopka, who really is from Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. "It's exciting for me to see these people. They're all part of how I got here."
Other stuff from the morning skate: Defenseman Kurtis Foster, who grew up in Carp, Ontario, about a 10-minute drive from Ottawa, said he will have about 50 friends and family in Scotiabank Place. "Hopefully, I can turn some of my family into Lightning fans from Sens fans," he said. ... Foster, playing in his first game since sustaining a lower-body injury opening night in Atlanta, said he is wearing a brace on the injured part of his body. Draw your own conclusions as to what was injured. ... Tocchet said Mike Smith, who gets the start against Ottawa, is still the team's No. 1 goalie, and the plan is to get him the most playing time once the schedule compresses. But in the near future, Antero Niittymaki will get playing time to keep him fresh. But Tocchet also made it clear, Smith has to perform to hold the job. "We know where Smitty is on our depth chart. He's our No. 1 goalie," Tocchet said. "But I think Niitty is a guy who doesn't have backup in his head. He knows his role but knows if he plays well, he's going to play, and he did. He played two really good hockey games for us. Now, it's Smitty's turn, and go from there." ... Today is the 25th anniversary of Tocchet's first NHL goal, Oct. 15, 1984, in the Flyers 5-2 loss to the Canadiens. "It's gotta be from three feet in," said Tocchet, who scored on Doug Soetart.