MONTREAL — Brett Connolly said just what you would expect of someone in his situation.
He called it "a great honor" to compete for a spot on the Lightning roster. He said he is trying to "live in the moment" and "get better every day."
But press a little and the wing admits he also is kind of proud of himself for getting this far in training camp. The team must reduce its roster from 26 to a maximum 23 by Wednesday. "It's what I wanted to do coming into camp," he said.
As well as prove a point to general manager Steve Yzerman: "That I do have character," Connolly said, "that I do work hard, and I have a great work ethic."
Yzerman challenged Connolly to show just that after the No. 6 overall pick of the 2010 draft struggled badly in his first camp. That said, few would have predicted Connolly's quick ascent. Even Yzerman envisioned him playing another season with his junior team in Prince George, British Columbia.
But Connolly, 19, has so impressed with his increased strength, speed and poise — and with Tampa Bay in need of top-six depth — the team might give him an extended look through nine regular-season games.
As per NHL rules for junior-eligible players, if Connolly plays a 10th game, the clock on his three-year, $2.7 million contract starts regardless of whether he gets sent back to Prince George.
No decisions have been made, Yzerman said, which is why Thursday's game with the Canadiens and the rematch Saturday are so important: "He's going to be playing against more NHL veterans. It's not the regular season, but it's a step closer. If he's going to stay with the team, he's going to have to play regular minutes. … He's going to have to play well."
Connolly's two goals in Thursday's 4-0 win — one with a toe drag and with a smack of the puck as he dove for it in front of the net — gave him a team-best three goals and tied him for the team lead with five points. He's playing on a line with center Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, and, as Stamkos said, "He's learning what it takes to play in the NHL and is making their decision very tough."
That's quite a difference from his first camp, when he was overmatched in strength and by the game's speed, and heard about it from Yzerman.
"It was the same message I give to all of our players, but particularly the young guys" Yzerman said. "It's a process to become an NHL player and to be an impact player. There's a level of commitment and a certain work ethic you need to do. He needed to hear that."
Connolly said "growing up, I relied on my talent a little too much. So I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror about where I wanted to be with my work ethic and really thinking, 'Am I giving it my all?' It was a good thing for (Yzerman) to give me a kick." A summer working in Toronto with trainer Peter Renzetti made, he said, an enormous difference.
"Night and day," coach Guy Boucher said. "Brett Connolly last year was a junior who wasn't in shape and didn't know what it was about. He brought his body up to a level where he at least he can show what he is all about."
Is it enough to win a job? "We'll see," Boucher said. "But right now he's battling so hard, we have to consider it."