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Isles helped pave Konopka's road back to Ottawa

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Centre Zenon Konopka still has fond memories about his one season with the New York Islanders, the team he'll face for the first time tonight since signing with the Senators (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images).

Zenon Konopka admits he still has a soft spot for the New York Islanders.

They're the team, the Ottawa Senators centre will tell you, that gave him his best — and some might even suggest first — real opportunity to become a bona fide National Hockey League player. No wonder the gritty 31-year-old centre still finds himself quietly pulling for the Isles at times.

"I had dinner with JT (Islanders all-star John Tavares) last night and PA Parenteau is one of my good buddies," Konopka said following the Senators' pre-game skate at Scotiabank Place in advance of tonight's matchup with the Isles tonight at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). "I follow them quite a bit. I have a vested interest and when they're not playing us, I'm cheering for them.

"When they're playing us, it's going to be all business and it's going to be a lot of fun playing against these guys."

Though he's been the NHL's penalty-minute leader for the last two seasons — and with 159 so far in this campaign, is well on his way to a third crown — Konopka became much more than that with the Islanders. He's now known as one of the league's most proficient faceoff men, is effective as a penalty killer and became a mentor last season for Tavares, who's enjoying a breakout season with 53 points (22-31) in 49 games and was named the NHL's first star of the month in January.

"Every year, you're looking for more of an opportunity to play and contribute to the team," Konopka said of his one season with the Islanders, whom he'll face for the first time tonight since joining the Senators. "They gave me that opportunity and (while) there were frustrating parts of the season, we stuck together last year and got through it. A lot of those lessons I take here to Ottawa and try to talk about them with the young guys here when things go wrong.

"Everything's a learning lesson now. If you stop learning in life, you're in trouble."

Much as he enjoyed and appreciated his time on the Island, Konopka couldn't resist the opportunity to return to the city where he enjoyed great junior success with the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League. He signed with the Senators in July as a free agent and is enjoying every bit of the ride with a team that has surprised many in the hockey world by moving into playoff contention.

"We were a close-knit bunch of guys (with the Islanders) and I take a lot of great friends out of that team," said the native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., whose faceoff ability made him a vital acquisition in the eyes of Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "But it's a business and you move on. I'm extremely happy in Ottawa and I'm extremely happy that everything has worked out here. It's been a lot of fun this year.

"I had a great time here in junior, met a lot of great people and understand how great a city (Ottawa) is. It's been kind of a dream come true to come home and make this run when no one gave us a shot at going anywhere."

Surprisingly, the Sens and Isles have yet to meet this season, even though the NHL schedule has moved into the moved into the month of February. Tonight's contest marks the start of a criticial five-game homestand for Ottawa, which is in dire need of putting a stop to a four-game losing streak. While the Senators stand sixth in the Eastern Conference, their margin over the ninth-place Washington Capitals is a mere four points.

"This last 30 games (of the regular season) is a huge push for every team," said Senators forward Nick Foligno. "Every team is tooth and nailing it, almost, to get in the playoffs, so it's a grind. But it makes it fun. Every game is almost a playoff atmosphere and that's how we need to approach it."

Added Konopka: "We've got to take care of business at home. It's crucial for us to set ourselves up for March and April, and this is a big month for us."

Around the boards

Jason Spezza took the morning skate off for "maintenance" reasons, but MacLean fully expects the Senators' No. 1 centre to be in the lineup tonight. He's only of only five players to suit up for all 53 games for Ottawa so far this season ... Konopka is hardly surprised that Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, is taking the NHL by storm in his third season in the league. "He might be the best player in the league right now (the way he's playing)," said Konopka. "The kid eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. He works tremendously hard off the ice and it was just a matter of time before the superstar came out in him. Everyone's seeing it now and it's been fun to watch him blossom." ... Craig Anderson makes his career-high 16th straight start in net for the Senators, while Evgeni Nabokov will tend goal for the Isles ... Tonight's game against the Islanders marks the 1,500th in Senators modern franchise history ... Fewer than 1,250 tickets remain for tonight's game, while only 100 are left for Saturday's matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

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