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Lightning's Connolly showing more fight

Lightning 181-pound wing Brett Connolly, left, takes on 220-pound Anthony Bitetto of the Predators.
Lightning 181-pound wing Brett Connolly, left, takes on 220-pound Anthony Bitetto of the Predators.
Published Feb. 21, 2015

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before this season, wing Brett Connolly said he can't remember if he ever got into a fight as a pro.

"Maybe once in two years," he said.

Connolly, 22, has always been a scorer with a slick shot, a reason why he was the sixth overall pick in 2010. But lately, Connolly has added more bite — and fight — to his game.

Connolly said it's part of adapting to a bottom-six role, realizing he can spark the team without scoring. The 6-foot, 181-pound forward is finishing checks, leading the Lightning in hits the past two games heading into tonight's matchup with the Coyotes. He's ticking off opponents, having fun doing it.

And Connolly, who has gotten in two fights the past three months, said it's no coincidence he's playing his best hockey of the season.

"Going up through juniors, I've always been a scorer," Connolly said. "You're playing 20 some minutes a game, you kind of have to reserve your energy. But when you're playing 11 to 12 minutes, you can get a little feisty, get a little grittier, go into the corners and finish your checks.

"When I'm engaged, my game is better, I feel when I'm doing that, so I'm going to keep doing that."

Connolly can still score, with 11 goals and three assists in 46 games. Give him the puck in the slot, and he's got a sniper's shot.

But Connolly said the past three weeks he's made it a focus to get more physical. Coach Jon Cooper said Connolly is finding his way, learning that in the NHL, you "adapt or die." And with an extremely deep forward group, Connolly has to battle for his minutes.

"He's had to change his game, he's rounded his game out now where he goes to a bunch of traffic areas he probably never used to before," Cooper said. "He's playing defense. He's going into the corner and he doesn't go to tap dance around, he goes to throw his body. A lot of times, when he didn't used to come out with pucks, now he does."

Connolly started to show an edge Jan. 29 against the Red Wings. After Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey boarded J.T. Brown, Connolly went after Quincey, sparking a scrum against the boards. Connolly, who fought Sabres defenseman Tyson Strachan (6 feet 3, 222) on Dec. 5, also dropped his gloves with Nashville defenseman Anthony Bitetto (6-2, 220) on Feb. 10.

Connolly might not have "won" the fights, but earned respect from teammates.

"Whether it's maturity or a sense of what we're lacking as a team, he's figuring it out," veteran wing Brenden Morrow said. "The last month or so, he's had some more bite in his game.

"You can't fake it. Maybe it just comes with being more comfortable."

Connolly said while playing on the fourth line with Morrow and Boyle, he understood that bringing energy could be big. And, Connolly has carried that over on the third line with Cedric Paquette and Valtteri Filppula, finding out he gets more scoring chances with a scrappy style.

"It's fun," he said. "I'm going to continue to play that way."

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Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.