RALEIGH, N.C. -- To say that Cory Conacher came out of nowhere wouldn't be fair. After all, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the American Hockey League last season.
On the other hand, Conacher went undrafted after a four-year career at Canisius College — not exactly a pipeline to professional hockey.
"Whenever I put Canisius in a (Microsoft) Word document, it's a misspelled word," Conacher said Tuesday night, after his goal stood up as the game winner in Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. "Obviously, it's a small school, not known for its hockey, but it's still hockey and you're playing against top teams. As long as you keep developing as a player, that's what's important. And now, you can't be satisfied making the NHL jump. There's always more you can do."
Conacher now has two goals and five points in his first three NHL games. Against Carolina, he drove the net to finish Vincent Lecavalier's rebound, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead in the first period. Goals by Tom Pyatt, Keith Aulie and Ryan Malone rounded out the Tampa Bay scoring.
Conacher may be in the considerable offensive shadow of teammates like Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but after scoring 80 points in the AHL last season, he showed he can add depth to a team with offensive weapons. The reason he is playing in the NHL, his coach says, is what he's done with the rest of his game.
"He backchecks hard, he cares about defense," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "That's where they did a good job with him in the American League.
"This is a major grind playing in the NHL, and he had to learn the whole defensive side of the game. He's paid his dues down there and he's a more complete player. He's ready to play offensively and defensively."
The entire Lightning roster was ready in all phases of the game Tuesday night. After falling behind the New York Islanders 4-0 before losing 4-3 on Monday, Boucher wanted to see his team cut down on odd-man rushes against Carolina. The Lightning got the message.
"We were (ticked) off about yesterday's game," Pyatt said. "We didn't play the way we wanted to. We played better defensively tonight. We took their space away and I think it got them frustrated."
But it was the offensive side of the puck where Pyatt made his biggest contribution. He batted Lecavalier's pass from the boards out of mid air, swatting it past Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward. It was a thing of beauty for a guy with just 16 previous goals in 177 NHL games.
"You're just trying to make contact and direct it toward the net, so if you get a piece of it, it's most likely going toward the net," said Pyatt.
He quickly admitted that the highlight reel marker was not part of his usual skill set.
"That's a first for sure," he said with a laugh. "I'll probably have a few bites on my phone."
Mathieu Garon, who played 48 games in goal for Tampa Bay last season, stopped 35 shots in his first start of the season. He gave credit to his teammates for blocking 23 shots, but he was particularly sharp in the final minutes of the game, stopping both Jordan Staal and Eric Staal on quality chances.
"We knew yesterday we came close, but not enough," said Garon. "We wanted to start right away tonight and prove we can be a good road team, too."
The Hurricanes were hoping for more, especially after a 5-1 loss in their opener at Florida on Saturday.
“We need a couple more guys to raise their games just five percent and it will make a huge difference,” said Carolina coach Kirk Muller. “Just like last game, we'll dwell on the good stuff and push that stuff. But we've got to be a tougher team to play against.”
“The results aren't there, but it's early in the year and we've got to stick with it and not panic and change our game," said Jeff Skinner, who scored the Hurricanes' only goal, an off-balance backhander on the power play. "Five-on-five we keep getting better, and if we keep putting that many pucks on net and get that many scoring chance, things are going to start going well for us."
For Tampa Bay, the results are already coming. With the third-period goals from Aulie and Malone, the Lightning now have scored eight of their 13 goals in the third period.
"We didn't want to open things up," said Pyatt, explaining how his team clamped down on the Hurricanes. "We were a structured team tonight."