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Matt O'Connor preaches patience in NHL quest

Senators goalie prospect making steady progress toward full-time job in League

by David Alter / Correspondent

LONDON, Ontario -- If there is anything Ottawa Senators goalie prospect Matt O'Connor took away from his first year of professional hockey, it's the ability to stay Zen.

"I learned pretty quickly not to get too caught up in everything," O'Connor said.

It was last September when O'Connor decided to sign a two-year, entry-level contract with the Senators, foregoing his senior season at Boston University. He was expected to start the season with Binghamton of the American Hockey League, but a groin injury to goaltender Andrew Hammond resulted in a promotion to the NHL earlier than anticipated.

After Craig Anderson started the first two games of last season, O'Connor, 24, started the Senators home opener on Oct. 11, 2015, and made 31 saves in a 3-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

It was a solid NHL debut in O'Connor's only appearance in the League so far. But his return to Binghamton came with some growing pains.

It took nearly two months before he recorded his first win at the professional level, a 27-save performance in a 4-1 win against St. John's on Dec. 5.

"I remember the guys last year, right away when we were hitting a bit of a slump, they said, 'Don't let your lows get too low and your highs get too high,' and that to me sums up pro hockey," O'Connor said. "You see a lot of guys in the American League who played some 500 games in the NHL, they score a goal and they're not really celebrating. It's kind of what you do now if you're a goal-scorer, and same for goalies. If you make a big save, it's what you are required to do."

O'Connor pulled together a string of wins over the final couple of months with Binghamton, but it wasn't enough to get it into the postseason. Knowing a long summer was ahead, the Toronto native didn't waste any time.

"Well, I think if you don't make the playoffs, you really have to use that to your advantage and you have to try and carry that extra time into the season," he said. "This summer, I had the best offseason I've ever had, so I know no matter what happens this year, I've tried everything I could in the summer, and that's a great feeling coming into camp."

Unlike previous seasons, having a year of professional hockey under his belt meant being invited to different offseason training sessions. O'Connor skated in Toronto with Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars and Michael Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly of the New Jersey Devils.

During the summer, O'Connor spent time with a strength coach Monday through Friday, with some gymnastics work added into the mix on Wednesday. That included headstands, incorporated for helping O'Connor (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) increase his flexibility.

"I think players are getting so much better moving laterally," he said. "You see that in the shootout, how they move across, even though you're long, you want to have extension. I go through a stretch routine where I do some handstands and some fun stuff. But I think for me, it's mobility and flexibility, because it's all about strength in those positions."

O'Connor's rookie tournament in London last week was cut short after 20 minutes, when Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tobias Lindberg collided with him.

"Absolutely minor, minor [injury]," Binghamton coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. "It [was] just totally precautionary."

Now a year older, O'Connor's tune has changed. Instead of being insistent on getting back in the NHL right away, it's about what will make him a better goaltender.

"I think the way I finished in the American League, I felt I reached a new level of consistency where I kind of got more acclimated to the rhythm of pro hockey," he said, "and just that need to play at your best day in and day out because it's a long season. I felt like because of that, going into this season, I'll be on the right track."

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