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Konopka makes NHL playoff debut one to remember

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators centre Zenon Konopka was a surprise addition to the lineup in Game 2 against the New York Rangers. His assist set up Nick Foligno's game-tying goal in the third (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Just when he might have least expected it, Zenon Konopka enjoyed a night to remember.

The gritty centre was a late — and surprise — addition to the Ottawa Senators lineup Saturday night for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York. And he ended up making a rather valuable contribution to the final outcome, a 3-2 overtime triumph that pulled the Sens even at 1-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Konopka's whacked a loose puck toward the Rangers net in the late going, allowing Nick Foligno the opportunity to deposit the tying goal behind Blueshirts goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with just 4:37 showing on the clock. He was also a force in the faceoff circle, winning 58 per cent of his draws, and contributed to the Ottawa penalty killing unit.

Not a bad night's work for a guy who, it turned out, was making his Stanley Cup playoff debut. Konopka saw 11:30 of ice time, well above his season average of 7:50.

"I always say there's no wasted opportunities," said the 31-year-old native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "If there's an opportunity, somebody's going to pick it up. I tried to make the most of it."

Given that he'd been scratched for the previous eight games, including Thursday's series opener, Konopka — who last saw action March 23 in Montreal — could have been excused for thinking he'd be a spectator again. But Senators head coach Paul MacLean, in a bid to add to his team's physical play, decided to add Konopka and blueliner Matt Carkner to the mix.

"I came to the rink (Saturday) morning not expecting to play — actually, it's been a long time since I played," said Konopka, who finished third in the National Hockey League with 193 penalty minutes despite suiting up for only 55 games. "To get in an actually affect the game the way (I did) is pretty gratifying. It's what you train for, it's what you sacrifice for, so it's pretty special."

When it mattered most, Chris Neil had a nose for the net.

The rugged Senators winger was the overtime hero for the Senators on Saturday night, finding the back of the net with a backhander off the rebound of a Jared Cowen shot at 1:17 of the extra period.

For the 32-year Neil, it was the first game-winning goal he's ever recorded in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But it's also further proof that it this time of the year, the contributions of such hard-nosed players grow in importance as the checking gets tighter.

"They usually say your top two lines cancel each other out, and it's your third and fourth lines that win you games," said Neil. "If you can chip in and help out offensively, it's big."

Fellow forward Foligno agreed Neil is someone whose game is built for the playoffs.

"The game gets physical and that's the type of game Neiler plays," said Foligno. "He thrives on that kind of atmosphere and he showed that (Saturday) night. He scored a big goal for us by hanging around the net and banging one in. He was physical all night.

"He brings a presence that's hard for other teams to match. We're really happy to have him on ours."

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