Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly, challenged to improve, raises his game

TAMPA — When Brett Connolly has a breakaway, he usually is so caught up in the moment, not much crosses his mind.

It was different Saturday against the Blues, and as Connolly bore down on goaltender Jaroslav Halak, he said he thought, "This could break me out of a slump."

But Halak gloved Connolly's wrist shot and the goal drought for the Lightning's rookie right wing is now 40 games.

"It's frustrating," Connolly said Wednesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, "but it will happen. I just have to keep working on my game."

This, though, is not a story about failure. It is about how Connolly has transformed from a player who was benched and called a defensive liability to one playing with more of the confidence and creativity expected of the No. 6 overall pick of the 2010 draft.

Goals are just another hurdle.

"I'm crossing my fingers for him," coach Guy Boucher said. "He's been playing great. He's got it all, and in the next years he's going to be a really good player."

No one is calling Connolly a finished product, not even close — "He still has a lot to learn and a lot to improve on," Boucher said — but it is notable how far he has come.

Just last month, Connolly, 19, was benched for three games in a stretch of seven. There also was the 16-game stretch in January and February in which he played fewer than 10 minutes, and Boucher's assertion Connolly needed to clean up his defensive game.

And not just in a specific area.

"Just overall," Connolly said. "Being aware, being on top of my checks, one-on-one battles, my play along the boards, not throwing the puck away, being patient. I have a lot more time than I used to think. Before, when I had the puck on the wall, I felt like I have to get it off my stick right away."

Now he surveys the ice before moving the puck, makes plays instead of turning the puck over and shows the hand skills needed to maneuver the puck through heavy traffic.

"He just needed that confidence," linemate Ryan Malone said. "It helps when you know you're going to go back on the ice. If you're thinking the whole time, 'If I make a mistake, I'm going to be on the bench,' it's tough to play hockey that way. Now the coaches believe he has the right direction."

Connolly's resurgence is one of circumstance, too; His minutes rose after Dominic Moore and Steve Downie were traded, and Vinny Lecavalier was sidelined Feb. 18 with a fractured hand.

But as Boucher said, "He's played good, so he's getting more time. If others played better than him, he would be getting less."

Connolly, 6 feet 2, 181 pounds, is averaging 11:08 of ice time but has played more in nine of his past 13 games, and Monday against the Sabres he had a career-most 16:48. He has four assists in those games, four goals, 12 points in 46 games on the season.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," Connolly said. "It's been a lot more fun of late to play. It's been good, and I'm going to improve even more the last 10 games."

If only he would have scored on Halak.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com. View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.

. Tonight

Lightning vs. Oilers

When/where: 7:30; Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM

Key stats: Lightning C Steven Stamkos has just two goals and three points in his past six games. … Oilers G Nikolai Khabibulin has not played at the Tampa Bay Times Forum since helping the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final. He is 4-3-0 in seven games against Tampa Bay with a 1.85 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. … The Lightning has not beaten the Oilers since January 2008 (0-2-1). … Edmonton C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leads all rookies with 22 power-play points and 19 power-play assists.

Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly, challenged to improve, raises his game 03/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 9:37pm]

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