After spending most of the season under the tutelage of Jon Cooper in the American Hockey League, Tampa Bay Lightning LW Brett Connolly is ready to show his improved game from playing for Cooper in the National Hockey League.
Connolly was recalled from Syracuse on Wednesday after Cory Conacher was traded to Ottawa. Connolly skated on a line with C Vinny Lecavalier and RW Richard Panik before Thursday’s game at Carolina.
“I’m really excited, and I didn’t know what to really expect with the whole trade deadline,’’ Connolly said. “So, I’m thrilled to be here. It’s been a good season and I’m hoping to help the team out.’’
After struggling last season as a 19-year-old rookie, Connolly thrived this season under Cooper in Syracuse. Connolly has 27 goals – tied for sixth in the league – and 57 points in 67 games. As Tampa Bay called up other prospects this season – Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Conacher – Connolly continued to hone his game.
Cooper knew Connolly would be ready when he was called up to the Lightning.
“We built his confidence up pretty good down in the American League,” Cooper said. “And when all the other guys got called up, I wanted to see if he could carry the load by himself – and he did.
“He can play the game north, south, east and west. So, he needs the puck on his stick and he needs the confidence to have the puck on his stick. And bottom line is he’s a goal scorer and pucks seem to find him.”
Connolly admitted it was difficult at first to see others called up ahead of him. He got over it quickly and figured he would remain in Syracuse for this season.
Now that he’s back in the NHL, he’s eager to show how his game has progressed.
“I think I’m more confident,” he said. “I played a lot of key minutes in Syracuse, and for me, confidence is my game. It was nice to score again, play a lot of minutes, round out my game. I feel I’m better defensively and I owe a lot of that to Coop.’’
“I had a really good practice (Wednesday) and I woke up this morning feeling really good,” Lecavalier said. “It feels fine, and I feel my stride is strong. It’s way better. I feel lighter on the ice. I can get around better, and that’s a positive.’’
Lecavalier’s return changes the dynamic of the lineup.
“What a boost,’’ Cooper said. “Vinny has been champing at the bit. He’s been positive and excited, and to have Vinny in the lineup is exciting.’’
Bergeron was pulled off the ice during Tuesday’s morning skate after he was dealt to Carolina, where he logged more than 21 minutes of ice time in his debut. But he admitted it would be a bit strange facing many familiar faces after spending nearly three years with Tampa Bay.
“I love the guys. Those are some of my best friends in that locker room and they were some of the best years of my career for many reasons,’’ Bergeron said before the game. “So, (Thursday) is going to be another weird night after playing that first one the same day I was traded, and then (Thursday) playing my old team.
“I had dinner with those guys (Wednesday). They were my best buddies five days ago and then all of a sudden they are coming in when both teams are chasing the playoffs. So, it’s a dose of reality.’’