Unsung heroes give Sens huge boost
Zenon Konopka's presence has lifted the Senators against the New York Rangers. (FILE PHOTO)
Cliches are usually such a waste of space, even on the unlimited world-wide web.
But there’s one that most aptly sums up what’s happening with the Senators, who are tied through four games of a hard-fought, first-round playoff battle with the Rangers thanks largely to the contributions of unlikely stars.
It goes like this: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Exhibit A) Matt Carkner.
A healthy scratch for 20 of Ottawa’s last 26 regular-season games and the first of this series, one of the NHL’s top heavyweight fighters is proving to be a guy that steps it up in the playoffs.
Carkner has made a huge impact in the Senators last three post-season wins, starting with his triple overtime goal April 22, 2010 against the Penguins.
In Game 2 vs. the Rangers last Saturday, No. 39 was ejected after playing just 39 seconds, but it was long enough for him ensure that only an idiot will ever again think he can get away with slapping Erik Karlsson around.
The enforcer turned playmaker Wednesday, stepping out of the box to accept a Jason Spezza pass and send Milan Michalek in for the first goal of an impressive, come-from-behind victory.
“It’s not an easy thing to go through,” Carkner said Thursday of watching his team play from the pressbox. “It was the first time in my career I was a healthy scratch for multiple games in a row. I just kind of had to learn how to deal with that, learn how to get over it. The big thing is we had a great group of guys in here helping me out with that.
“It’s a tough situation to be in. I just tried to stay positive and work hard to get myself ready when needed.”
Exhibit B) Zenon Konopka. Like Carkner, he was a designated sitter for 20 of the season’s final 26 — including the last three meaningless games coach Paul MacLean should have used him in — and Game 1 against the Rangers. Like Carkner, he resurfaced when the Senators needed to muscle up last Saturday. With limited ice time, all he did was set up Nick Foligno for a late, game-tying goal that allowed the Senators to win in overtime. Since then, his workload has grown, partly because he’s been so good in the faceoff circles (winning 17 of 23 draws the last two games) and partly because of his fearlessness in parking on Henrik Lundqvist’s doorstep and taking all sorts of abuse to make life more difficult for the Rangers goalie.
“It’s awesome playing and contributing,” said Konopka. “I’ve always said there’s no better feeling in the world than winning in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re playing or what level you’re playing. It’s an unbelievable awesome high and hopefully we’ll hit that high again Saturday night.”
Exhibit C) Chris Neil.
This one is really no surprise. When Neil was injured in the last practice before the playoffs, observers felt he was one of the players the team could least afford to lose. Neil, the Senators most physical force, is exactly the type of player needed at this time of year. He continues to bang, and he contributes with timely goals, as he did by scoring the OT winner in Game 2.
Neil also assisted on Sergei Gonchar’s tying goal Wednesday.
“It’s intense out there for sure,” said Neil. “Just being able to fight a guy, that’s not winning battles. You’ve got to go out and win the 1-on-1 battles, the puck battles, getting to the net battles to get body position ... those are the little battles you’ve got to win, to win.”
Honourable mention should go to Bobby Butler, who didn’t dress for 11 of the final 16 games in the season, then was pressed into duty to take Daniel Alfredsson’s spot on the second line when the captain suffered a concussion at MSG in Game 2. The slightly built Butler is not a “tough” player, but it couldn’t have been easy for him to shake off the rust and step into such an important role in his first NHL playoff game.
“I think between Zenon and Bobby Butler, it’s a perfect example of what a team is,” MacLean said Thursday. “Both of them were healthy scratches for much of the end of the season, but continued to work at their game and maintain their game and their minds and stayed positive. Now, all of a sudden we’re four games into the playoffs and both of them are in the series and both of them are making contributions to the team. I think it just speaks volumes of what type of character they have and what type of team players they are. They’re getting their opportunity now and they’re ready to do it. They came into the lineup and they’re ready to play. I think that’s a great compliment to them.
“Matt’s the same thing. This is all about the team doing well, not individuals. And in order for the team to do well, obviously individuals step up game in and game out, but Matt is also a team player. Every thing he does is for the team. He’s been a factor.”
A former 67’s captain, Konopka was in attendance as his old junior team won its Game 7 vs. the Barrie Colts Tuesday, the first of two OT playoff wins for local fans to cheer for in back-to-back nights.
“It was special for me,” said Konopka. “I was right where the goal happened, behind the glass where it went in. To see the joy ... then to live it the next night... it was pretty cool.”
Konopka is like Carkner in that both veterans can become unrestricted free agents this summer, and neither wants to go anywhere.
“I want a lifetime contract,” he said Thursday, reiterating an early-season sentiment. “I love Ottawa. What’s there not to love? It was a frustrating year at times, not being in the lineup, but I’ve had a great year in Ottawa. I love the city, I love the people here.”
For the leadership and impact they provide, both in the dressing room and at playoff time, both Carkner and Konopka need to be re-signed by GM Bryan Murray.
If that was a tough decision before this week, it should be an obvious one now.
One more cliche should be remembered, as these guys set the tone for important players of the future like Jared Cowen and Zack Smith.
It goes like this: You earn your pay cheque in the regular season, and you earn your reputation in the playoffs.