MONTREAL — Lightning rookie Brett Connolly said he learned a lot from his confidence-building experience with Canada at the world junior championship, calling it a time "I'll never forget."
The most memorable moment for Connolly, along with the rest of his country, was the semifinal against Russia on Tuesday. The Canadians made a stunning third-period comeback from 6-1 down before losing 6-5.
"It got out of hand for a bit, but in the second intermission we took a deep breath and said, 'We can either fold up the tent or come out and do something special,' " Connolly said. "And we almost did that. It was a very character effort by all the guys."
It was Connolly's character, more than his five goals in the tournament, that general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher appeared most proud. The 19-year-old wing bounced back after a rocky start to help lead Canada to the bronze medal with a 4-0 win over Finland on Thursday.
Connolly drew criticism for comments he made at the team selection camp, calling it "bittersweet" to go from the NHL to the world juniors. He then was challenged by coaches to give more effort and be more physical, and the assistant captain was put on a checking line.
Connolly ended up loving that role, saying playing against the opposing team's top lines will only help him defensively in the NHL. But it was initially a shock, especially because he is a top-six forward with the Lightning.
"When you go to a tournament like that, coming back from the NHL, you want to be on the first power-play unit, want to be on the first (penalty kill), want to be out there all the time," he said. "That didn't happen from the start. I think for me, once that happened, I checked my ego at the door right away. When I got there at the start … I could have handled it a little better."
Connolly acknowledged that he "wasn't good enough" on the first day of camp and the first few days were difficult. His hit on wing Quinton Howden during an intrasquad game knocked Howden out of the lineup with what was reported to be concussion symptoms.
But Yzerman said Connolly showed maturity and unselfishness from then on, "kept his mouth shut" and played his role while under scrutiny. Connolly had six points in five games and asserted himself in a leadership role. He hopes he can carry that over to Tampa Bay, where he jumped right on a line with Vinny Lecavalier and Dominic Moore on Saturday night against the Canadiens.
"I thought he showed incredible character," Boucher said. "We heard that when it was 6-1 (Russia), he was the first guy to stand up in the third period, saying it wasn't over. … What I liked was his drive, dedication to doing the details of a winner. That's what we're asking of him."
Connolly entered Saturday with four goals and four assists in 28 NHL games after earning a roster spot out of training camp. Boucher said the Lightning doesn't want to change him or put more pressure on him, "just do what he was already doing before."