There have been few Norfolk Admirals whose arrival at Scope arena was more anticipated than that of Zenon Konopka.
Known throughout the AHL for his intensity and inspirational abilities, the veteran had been with his new team all of about two days before Admirals holdover Bracken Kearns pronounced him a “warrior” and said he already had the players hanging on his every word.
So it disappointing when Konopka began the season with a goal and an assist in his first 10 games. He's not a scorer, per se, but he popped in 24 with Syracuse last season and his overall game was listless as well.
Konopka said he was mystified by his struggles, which he'd never before endured to that extent. The harder I try, the worse I perform, the captain said. His body language bespoke a man bouncing between dejection and anger.
In the past three games, however, it's all come together for the Niagara Falls, Ont., native. Konopka scored in the Admirals' 5-2 drubbing of visiting Rockford last Friday, then notched the winner a night later in a 3-2 triumph. Tuesday, as the clock ticked down in Lowell and overtime seemed unavoidable, Konopka did it again, banging in a Steve Downie feed from behind the net to lift the visitors to a 4-3 victory.
“He was the first to say he hadn't been playing well,” Kearns said. “I'd follow the guy anywhere.”
Konopka, 27, said after Saturday's game that contributing on the scoreboard was a huge relief.
“Losing creeps into your entire life,” he said. “You just hurt so badly for the team.”
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The Admirals roster was expanding by the end of last weekend, when Coach Darren Rumble had to scratch four healthy players. Room was opened up when forwards Chris Lawrence and Brent Henley were assigned to ECHL Augusta, but with seven veterans and AHL rules allowing only six to dress for games, players are still going to have to be sidelined. For the past two games, that's included veteran Brandon Bochenski.
“Bo would be the first to admit he has more in the tank and another gear to give us,” Rumble said. But the coach, who as a Tampa Bay defenseman dressed for only five games during the 2004-05 season, doesn't expect to hear any complaints.
“I have no time for that [stuff],” Rumble said, his usually happy face creasing into a frown. “If you want to be a negative distraction because you're not playing, you're not going to be here very long.
“I have tough decisions to make every night but it's healthy for the team because if you don't want to compete in practice, you don't play.”
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Keith Phillips, Norfolk's director of communications, notes that Steve Downie, recently acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers organization, has an unusual distinction this season. The forward has the most assists by an Admiral (three Tuesday at Lowell) and the most by an opponent against the Admirals (four Oct. 29 for Philadelphia).
In a similar vein, Bochenski is tied for the most points scored in a game against the Admirals with five one night in March, 2006. He's also the record-holder for the most Norfolk goals in a game with four against Philadelphia in November, 2006.