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McKenna Living His NHL Dream

by Chris Errington / Tampa Bay Lightning

When Mike McKenna was signed to a National Hockey League contract by Tampa Bay on February 3, he was so unsure of what to expect that he packed just a week’s worth of clothing.

Considering how STRONG he was in a critical 1-0 victory over the visiting New York Islanders Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum, McKenna may be sticking around for awhile. Luckily for him, his girlfriend hasn’t only made the trip from Norfolk, Va. to join him; she brought nearly his entire wardrobe with her.

“I think she brought as much as she could fit in the car,” a visibly emotional McKenna joked in the post-game locker room. “I figured if I was here long enough, I could just do some laundry. Now I won’t have to as quickly.”

All joking aside, McKenna has been exactly what the Lightning has needed since regular starting goaltender Mike Smith was sidelined with an upper body injury. The 25-year-old, who’s spent the past four seasons toiling and perfecting his game in the minors, has been unbeatable for five of the six regulation periods he’s played so far – save a difficult third period in an overtime loss at Pittsburgh in his first start.

Saturday, with the Lightning in desperate need of a victory, McKenna became the fastest goaltender in team history to post a shutout. In all, he made 28 saves, a few in spectacular fashion, and saved the game when he made a pair of stops against a streaking Kyle Okposo in the final 30 seconds.

“That’s what you dream of as a kid is making that save,” McKenna said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw [Okposo] coming out of the box.”

What may have made McKenna’s performance even more impressive is that, in a game the Lightning had to win, his shutout came against a team who’s own goaltender was nearly as dominant. New York’s Yann Danis, who held Tampa Bay to a lone goal in last week’s 3-1 Islanders’ home victory, was beaten just once – on a shot from the point that Gary Roberts deflected in with just 6:26 remaining. If not for the rookie’s unbeatable performance, a crucial victory could easily have been a crushing defeat.

“We’re looking for players to rise to the occasion and Mike did and he came up with a big save for us,” Tampa Bay Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. “This is his lifetime dream to play in the NHL… How can you not root for a kid like that?”

Until now, dreaming is the closest McKenna could boast of an NHL career. When he was finished shutting out the Islanders and receiving congratulatory handshakes from teammates, he finally had a chance to put the moment into perspective.

This is his lifetime dream to play in the NHL… How can you not root for a kid like that? - Rick Tocchet
“This could last another day or a lifetime, but I know the memory always will,” McKenna said. “This feels so good and is so emotional because I’ve earned it. That’s not being conceited, it’s just a fact. I can’t begin to say how many good goalies there are in the AHL that never get this chance and for me to sit here knowing I’m doing my best to capitalize on it is very satisfying.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of guys [in the minors] and the idea is that we work so hard down there to be as prepared as possible up here.”

One of the first players to congratulate the rookie was injured veteran backup Olaf Kolzig, who joked that his first victory was so long in coming that McKenna made his look far too easy. Kolzig said he hadn’t spoken with the rookie much before Saturday’s victory, but that his lone words were meant to comfort and ease McKenna’s pre-game jitters.

“I just said to have fun with it,” Kolzig said. “He looks so at ease out there and this is such a great story. It’ll sink in for him at some point, but right now, he’s probably pinching himself.”

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