Friday, May 25, 2018
Sports

Lightning wing Connolly finding niche

TAMPA — Lightning wing Brett Connolly believes hockey karma played a role in his winning goal Saturday night.

Connolly, 21, felt he was playing some of his best hockey in Syracuse of the American Hockey League — logging a lot of minutes, killing penalties and getting scoring chances. But he had no goals to show for six AHL games, or his first two this season with the Lightning.

So it was all the more rewarding for Connolly to deflect a shot from defenseman Radko Gudas into the net in the third period against St. Louis to give Tampa Bay the lead for good in a 4-2 win.

"Once you get that first one, you feel a little better about yourself," Connolly said. "You can make more plays and are more confident. So hopefully, it spirals from here."

Connolly, the sixth overall pick in 2010, was called up last week for the second time this season. He says he appreciates each day in the NHL more than when he played 68 Lightning games two years ago as a 19-year-old rookie.

And coach Jon Cooper has seen an evolution in Connolly's game that might see him stick.

"He doesn't sit around and kind of wait for the game to come to him anymore," Cooper said. "He played a little bit nervous last year. He's much more assertive, skating with pucks, moving pucks, driving the net. Last year, when he first came to (the AHL), he spent half the night behind the net, and we had to push him in front of the net to say, 'Hey, this is where goals are scored.'

"He went from a perimeter player, to now he slashes into the hole, he drives, he's backchecking hard. Instead of playing the game 3 feet from the boards all over the rink, he now plays in the middle of the ice, plays in front of the net, and it's been really good for his game."

Connolly credited Cooper for being hard on him all of last year in Syracuse, where he played 71 games. Cooper said that Connolly didn't hang his head after being sent down despite a strong training camp in which he "did everything he could do."

Connolly said he has things in perspective.

"You play in the American League and you're put up and down, and once you get back (to the NHL) you don't want to go back," Connolly said. "I think, for me I appreciate everything a little more than when I came in here my first year, maybe took a few things for granted. You just take it day by day and stay on an even keel and don't get too far ahead of yourself, and try to play well every night."

The Lightning brought up Connolly to spark a stale offense, and Cooper said the wing has delivered in two games on the third line.

"I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I don't think that's the last goal Brett Connolly is going to score in the near future," Cooper said. "Sometimes you have to get the monkey off your back, and he did it. When that happens, it starts to come in bunches."

With honors: Syracuse forward Nikita Kucherov was named the AHL player of the week. He totaled nine points (five goals, four assists) in three games and extended his scoring streak to seven games.

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