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Connolly aims to win spot with Lightning

Brett Connolly has transformed his game after a confidence-crushing rookie season and forced himself into the competition for as many as four spots in Tampa Bay's top 12 forwards.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Brett Connolly has transformed his game after a confidence-crushing rookie season and forced himself into the competition for as many as four spots in Tampa Bay's top 12 forwards.

TAMPA — The burning question after the Lightning's scrimmage Tuesday was whether Brett Connolly's goal was luck or skill.

The right wing initially went with luck and gave more credit to Jonathan Drouin's pass that set the whole thing up.

But asked if there wasn't at least some skill needed to score the goal that gave the Blue a 1-0 victory over the White at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Connolly caved.

"Maybe a little," he finally said. "I just tried to get it off quick."

Connolly, 21, need not be modest. In fact, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2010 draft should be proud of how he transformed his game after a confidence-crushing rookie season and how he has forced himself into the competition for as many as four spots in Tampa Bay's top 12 forwards.

That competition gets going tonight in the preseason opener against the Blues at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Connolly's first game likely will be Thursday at the Times Forum against the Predators. He could not have a better jumping-off point than the way he has started camp with two goals in two scrimmages.

"I look at Brett Connolly compared to a year ago; he's a way better hockey player," Cooper said. "He's a mature player now, and it's kind of fun to watch."

"I just want to make it hard on the coaches and give them no reason to send me back to Syracuse," Connolly said of Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate. "I'm pretty happy with the way I started."

Connolly started his career in over his head. As a 19-year-old rookie in 2011-12, he was without a goal in his final 50 games. Because he still had a year of junior eligibility, he was not allowed in the AHL, which was where he should have been.

As if his confidence wasn't shaken enough, Connolly was not invited to the 2012-13 Lightning training camp. He was sent to Syracuse, playing for Cooper until the coach went to Tampa Bay after Guy Boucher was fired.

"It was the best thing for me to stay down there and get better as a player," said Connolly, who had 31 goals, 63 points in 71 games. "I feel more comfortable on the ice. I feel in a better spot. I feel good."

Especially on defense, where Connolly, 6 feet 2, 193 pounds, said he is most improved, and he credits Cooper's instruction.

"It's almost second-nature now," he said. "I just know where to be in the defensive end, which I really didn't know 100 percent of the time last year. It was nice to have that mind-set going into training camp. It's just a lot easier this year."

"The big thing with Brett is he was recognizing how we want to play the game," Cooper said. "He was adapting, and that was really encouraging for us. And when he started to play D, he started to put the puck in the net."

"I've said it all along," Cooper added, "when you look after (the defensive zone), the other end will look after itself."

That brings us back to Tuesday and Connolly's goal-scoring collaboration with Drouin, whose pass somehow got past a crowd of opponents.

"I'm not sure what happened, honestly," Connolly said. "I got spun around and (the puck) was pretty much on my stick."

"He's a smart player," Drouin said. "He sees the game well, and he puts in his work down low in his zone and in the other zone."

So, was Connolly's goal luck or skill?

Probably a little of both.

NOTES: The camp roster was reduced to 59 as forward Brett Welychka, defenseman Jake Dotchin and goalie Eric Brassard were released from amateur tryouts. … Defenseman Dylan Blujus will be out 2-4 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. … Forward Joel Vermin, drafted 186th overall in June, signed a three-year, entry-level contract. Vermin, 21, will be assigned to Bern of the Swiss-A league for which he had 13 goals, 35 points in 47 games last season.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

. Tonight

Lightning vs. Blues

When/where: 7; Amway Center, Orlando

Radio: 970-AM

Lineup: Goaltenders Cedrick Desjardins, Kristers Gudlevskis. Defensemen Mark Barberio, Matt Carle, Radko Gudas, Slater Koekkoek, Dmitry Korobov, Nikita Nesterov. Forwards Mike Angelidis, J.T. Brown, B.J. Crombeen, Valtteri Filppula, Henri Ikonen, Alex Killorn, Adam Erne, Cedric Paquette, Teddy Purcell, Tom Pyatt, Nate Thompson, Dana Tyrell

Connolly aims to win spot with Lightning 09/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 9:48pm]

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