Zenon Konopka was cheerful but chilly last week as he gingerly lowered himself into a tub of ice and water up to his ribs. The Norfolk Admirals' captain had just spent two hours playing his characteristic, hard-nosed game and it had resulted in a defeat of the visiting Manchester Monarchs.
Konopka opened the game that night by scoring just eight seconds after the opening face off, tipping in a cross-ice pass from Brandon Bochenski at the far post after the feed flicked off the outstretched stick of linemate Grant Potulny. It was the fastest goal to start a game in Admirals history.
“That's a planned play we're tried a bunch of times this season but it's never quite worked,” Konopka said. “Tonight, all the pieces just came together.”
At week's start, the 28-year-old felt like his back was in pieces. So severe was the pain and stiffness that he was unable to get out of bed at times and he's scheduled for an MRI this week. However, the Admirals' medical staff was able to work wonders on a part of Konopka's body where he says bone sometimes rubs directly on bone.
“If you'd told me on Monday that I'd be able to play this week and play the way I like to play, I would have said you're crazy,” Konopka said, soaking his torso in the tub as an attendant poured bags of ice in the water. “You just have to do whatever it takes to be ready to go.”
Not only was Konopka able to play in the week's three home games, he excelled, finishing the stretch with two goals, three assists, 11 shots and a plus-3 rating as the Admirals went 2-1 with a sweep of Manchester. Despite his performance, Konopka wished he were able to do more.
“It's been the most frustrating year for me,” said the captain, who has nine goals, 27 points and 104 penalty minutes while playing in 35 of the Admirals' 40 games. “Injuries have handicapped what I can do on the ice. My shoulder, back, knee. Certain practices, I can't go the whole practice and in certain games, I've had to change the way I play physically and had to back off a bit.”
Heaven help the AHL's Eastern Conference if Konopka ever gets fully healthy.
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Twenty-year old backup goaltender Riku Helenius
had been playing regularly in the ECHL but has only played a period with Norfolk since being called up from Mississippi on Dec. 21. Nonetheless, Admirals coach Darren Rumble isn't feeling any urgency to get the Lightning prospect into live action.
“I don't want to put him into something he's not ready for,” Rumble said. “I wouldn't be doing him a favor by putting him in before he's clearly ready. He went in for a period up in Worcester and did great, so I have a pretty good idea that he could do the job for a whole game, but Mike [McKenna]'s our guy right now. If [Helenius] doesn't play for a couple weeks, it's not the end of the world. He might be 25 before he's ready for the NHL.”
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One Admiral who looks ready for the NHL right now is Steve Downie, who will represent the franchise at the AHL All Star Classic later this month. Downie, who leads the team with 32 points, has been red-hot for several weeks, but Rumble said he believes remaining in the AHL might be the best thing for the Newmarket, Ontario, native.
“You want guys to really develop their game down here so when they go up to the NHL, they have a foundation to build upon,” said Rumble, who spent most of his first three years as a player in the AHL before beginning his NHL career. “Dominating down here for 15 or 18 games isn't going to compose that foundation. Is he too good for this league? Probably. But I think being here for a year would allow him to develop his whole game instead of going up and just learning how to be a third-liner.”
Norfolk fans would love to see Downie stick around and deliver the kind of performance he put on during Saturday's defeat of Manchester. The wing scored twice to pull the Admirals into a 2-2 tie, en route to a 4-2 victory. Both goals featured Downie holding the puck long enough for the goaltender to make the first move before he scored and he also hit Monarchs' leading scorer Trevor Lewis with a clean, open-ice check that required the visiting trainer to run onto the ice.
“He certainly got under their skin tonight,” said Admirals center Chris Gratton, a longtime NHL veteran. “Downs is one of the best young prospects I've ever played with and he's getting better and better.”
Downie's best move, however, might not have been any of the above. It may have come when the 21-year-old skated away from a group of irate Monarchs after his hit on Lewis, leading to Manchester having to kill a roughing penalty and showing that he's gaining much-needed composure.
“There's a time for fighting and a 2-2 game going into the third period isn't the time,” Downie said. “Anytime there's a big hit in hockey, the guy's teammates want to stick up for him, so I didn't have a problem with it.”
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Admirals statistical notes: Downie has points in 11 of his past 14 games (8G, 12A) ... McKenna has started Norfolk's past seven games, going 4-3 with a 2.71 GAA and .910 save percentage during that stretch. Since the beginning of December, McKenna's GAA has dropped from 3.77 to 3.02 and his save percentage has risen from .877 to .897... Gratton is on a six-game point streak (2G, 4A). He has points in 8 of the 10 games he has appeared in for the Admirals (2G, 7A) ... Bracken Kearns has points in three straight games (2G, 1A) - including the game-winning goal in back-to-back games ... Brandon Bochenski has points in three straight games (1G, 3A).
Konopka's goal eight seconds into Friday's 4-3 win over Manchester was the fastest goal to start a game in AHL Admirals' history. However, it was not the fastest to start a period in AHL Admirals history. The previous fastest goal to start a game was 14 seconds by Bochenski on 12/16/06 at Springfield. The fastest goal to start a period remains seven seconds after Casey Hankinson's third-period goal on 11/10/00 at the Saint John Flames ... After going 37 games without a penalty shot for or against Norfolk this season, the Admirals had penalty shots in back to back games. McKenna denied Keith Aucoin on a third-period penalty shot on Wednesday night versus Hershey. On Friday night versus Manchester, Justin Keller hit the post on a third-period penalty shot attempt. Norfolk is now 9-19 on penalty shot attempts and has stopped 11 of 14 opponent penalty shot attempts since joining the AHL in 2000-01.