More than a few eyebrows were raised prior to Game 6 of Pittsburgh’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals series with the Ottawa Senators when Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma posted his lineup card.
Joining the fourth line with veteran bangers Mike Rupp and Craig Adams
, who each finished the regular season ranked in the top-20 in the National Hockey League in hits, was 5-foot-8, 180-pound winger Chris Conner, who had spent a majority of the season with the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Adding to the intrigue of Bylsma’s decision was a physically-imposing Senators defensive core which included the likes of 6-foot-5 Andy Sutton, 6-foot-4 Matt Carkner and 6-foot-3 Chris Phillips.
While many pundits wondered how the diminutive Conner was a better fit to execute the finer points of Bylsma’s up-tempo system – getting pucks in deep, taking the body down low and maintaining puck possession for extended periods – than some of the Penguins’ other potential options, Bylsma was not one of them.
In fact, he believed Conner was the perfect fit at that particular time in the series.
“We were playing a team that had a physical defensive group in Ottawa,” Byslma said. “I think we had softened them up a little bit with the forechecking presence we had established. I thought that with his speed – not only in the neutral zone but down low – he would be able to beat a guy in the corner, which he had showed to us.”
Conner said that he didn’t change the way he played at all heading into Game 6, instead focusing on continuing to use his speed to his advantage in the cycling game.
“I just think that I know I am one of the small guys in the league so I know that I have to use my speed down there and not let D-men try to take me out,” Conner said. “I just try to roll off them and take the puck to the net, which opens up lanes for others.”
Conner’s speed and willingness to drive to the net nearly resulted in a goal for his line at the 7:25 mark of the first period.
Conner had a step-and-a-half on Carkner as he drove to the right post to deflect a centering pass from Adams. Ottawa netminder Pascal Leclaire denied Conner with a pokecheck, but the puck bounced into the air and landed on the blade of Rupp, who took advantage of the soft spot created by Conner. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Leclaire made a sparkling toe save on Rupp to prevent Pittsburgh from evening the contest, 1-1.
That shift was one of several by the Conner-Adams-Rupp unit which saw them create scoring chances from their work along the boards working over the Senators defense. Combined the trio had three shots on goal and laid seven hits on Ottawa, but what the stats cannot show is how their line helped get momentum on Pittsburgh’s side following an early 3-0 deficit by playing almost every shift inside the Senators defensive zone.
“With Adsy and Rupper, we know we have to get it in and keep control of it down there,” Conner said. “That is what we need to do to be successful. We had a few good shifts there. I thought it worked out well.”
Bylsma’s faith in the 26-year-old Westland, Mich. native based upon an impressive body of work Conner had showed the Penguins’ entire hockey operations staff dating back to last season when Conner suited up for the Dallas Stars.
During Conner’s 38-game stint with the Stars, which saw him post a respectable three goals and 13 points while seeing spot duty on the top-two lines at times, Conner impressed the Penguins’ pro scouts with the grit and determination he showed down low and along the boards against big, physical teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers, despite his stature.
Penguins management came away so impressed with Conner’s performance that he was one of the players they targeted when NHL Free Agency began last July 1, quickly inking him to a deal five days later.
Conner did not disappoint in his first season in the Pittsburgh organization, particularly in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs when he tied for the Baby Penguins scoring lead with four points (2G-2A) as WBS was swept by Albany. More importantly than the numbers, Conner continued to play with that tenacity which first opened up the Penguins’ eyes last season.
“He showed that against Albany when they came after him hard trying to take his head off and he kept creating scoring chances down low,” Bylsma said. “I thought his speed and ability to beat guys was a factor in putting him in there. That is what I saw from him and I thought he could bring.”
Adams and Rupp came away impressed with how well Conner meshed with their line despite it being just his second career NHL playoff contest (he played one game with Dallas in ’07-08).
“I thought he played really well,” Adams said. “We know what he brings. He has that quickness and tenacity and ability to get away from guys out there. I thought he did a good job of that last game. I thought we played most of the time in their end. That is always a good sign.”
“He is a player who adds good speed, he has a great mind for the game and offensively he makes things happen,” Rupp said. “You don’t have to do anything different with him. He played well.”
Playing well on short notice is nothing new for Conner, who finished the regular season second among WBS scorers with 56 points (19G-37A) despite playing in just 59 games.
Back on January 25 he was summoned early in the morning for a contest against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden when Bill Guerin couldn’t dress. Conner quickly packed his bags following the Baby Penguins’ practice and made the two-hour drive to New York, where he notched the first two-goal performance of his NHL career, including the game-winner in the third period, while skating on a line with Sidney Crosby
Conner believes he has had so much success in these types of situations because he has just one thought on his mind anytime he gets recalled – continue proving to management you have the skills to play at the NHL level.
“It is good to get a chance to come up and showcase yourself,” Conner said. “At the same time you want to help the team be successful, which is the most important part. Sometimes the travel going up and down gets a little long but you never complain when you come up to play in the NHL.”
Conner hopes his current recall coincides with another lengthy postseason run for he and the Penguins.
“It would be fun,” Conner said. “It’s an experience you can never replace so it’s going to be fun.”