|Former Ottawa 67's captain Zenon Konopka is excited about making his Senators debut tonight, when Ottawa faces off against the provincial rival Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in Toronto (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
Count on the requisite amount of jitters tonight when the auditions start for real at Ottawa Senators training camp.
This evening's pre-season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre (7 p.m., NHL Centre Ice, Team 1200) marks the beginning of the true evaluation process for head coach Paul MacLean and his staff in terms of building the roster that will open the 2011-12 season in Detroit on Oct. 7.
For young talent such as defenceman David Rundblad, centre Mika Zibanejad and forward Nikita Filatov, it'll be a first chance to slip on a Senators jersey in a game situation — precisely the environment MacLean and Co. want to see such players experience and handle.
Then there's 30-year-old Zenon Konopka, a former Ottawa 67's captain who spent more than his share of time back then attending games and cheering for the Senators at Scotiabank Place. That he'll finally be the subject of similar fan adoration ... let's say that, while Konokpa might not have the same giddiness of the younger set, he's still plenty fired up about this moment.
"After you've had 500 stitches in your face and you've been fighting 58 times, that nervousness goes away in a hurry," Konopka, the National Hockey League's penalty minute leader the last two seasons, said following the Senators' pre-game skate at Scotiabank Place. "But there is some excitement in lacing them up for Game 1 and putting that Senators jersey on.
"I've seen a lot of games in this building. I'm friends with (Senators captain) Daniel Alfredsson's brother, Henric, and we used to come here and watch them when I was in junior. It's pretty cool to throw that jersey on and be a part of the team."
MacLean, who pushed general manager Bryan Murray to sign Konopka over the summer when he was available as a free agent, envisions the feisty centre being much more than just a small part of his lineup.
"I know what he brings to the table," said MacLean, who crossed paths with the native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., when both were in the Anaheim Ducks organization. "I've seen him throughout his career in the National Hockey League and what he brings is a very efficient, high number in the faceoff circle, which is a priority to (control) the puck.
"He's also a very competitive guy and he's great for his teammates. He's a great team player and every team needs players like that."
When Konopka suited up for 82 games for the New York Islanders last season, it marked the first time he'd played a full NHL schedule for any NHL team. He logged 74 games in 2009-10 with the Tampa Bay Lightning but prior to that, spent much of his team bouncing around the minors, save for brief pit stops with Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets.
"There is some excitement in lacing them up for Game 1 and putting that Senators jersey on. I've seen a lot of games in this building. I'm friends with (Senators captain) Daniel Alfredsson's brother, Henric, and we used to come here and watch them when I was in junior. It's pretty cool to throw that jersey on and be a part of the team." - Zenon Konopka
Along the way, Konopka never stopped remembering to enjoy the ride.
"I'm a single guy, I don't have a wife and kids," he said. "It would be a lot tougher if I did. But I made that decision to get into hockey and put my life into hockey. It's been an enjoyable ride. I've seen a lot of different places — I think I've been to 46 out of 50 (American) states and been to nine provinces.
"It's been exciting and I've taken it in stride and enjoyed it instead of being frustrated. Just enjoyed it day to day and everything has seemed to work out."
All that being said, Konopka clearly would like to make Ottawa his last hockey stop.
"If someone puts a lifetime contract in front of me, I'll sign it today," he said with a grin. "I'm excited to be here and I want to be here for a long time ... there's a lot of great people I still know here, a lot of familiarity here, so it's fun to be back here. It's a lot like coming back home."
Contrast all of that with the 18-year-old Zibanejad, the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, who's eagerly anticipating his first clash with Ottawa's provincial rival. While the young Swede got a small taste of it last week at the rookie tournament in Oshawa, Ont., he knows tonight represents a step up in class.
"This is the next level, so it's going to be tough out there," said Zibanejad. "But I'm really looking forward to it. I'm going to try to enjoy it as much as possible and play my game. Just feel comfortable with my game out there and try to create as much as possible."
MacLean, who was impressed by Zibanejad's play in Oshawa, is particularly interested in seeing how he steps up against a tougher grade of opponent.
"(Zibanejad) showed at the rookie camp that he's a very capable player," said MacLean. "Now he's going to play against NHL players in an NHL exhibition game and we'll see what kind of progress he makes."
Around the boards
Forward Mark Stone, who'll be in the lineup for the Senators in Toronto tonight, has signed an entry-level contract with the team ... Alex Auld and Robin Lehner will split goaltending duties tonight against the Leafs, with the former playing the first half of the game ... Defencemen Jared Cowen and Eric Gryba, along with forwards Stephane Da Costa and Nick Foligno, aren't making the trip to Toronto. Thirteen forwards are travelling with the team, with veteran Mark Parrish sitting this one out ... The Senators' home pre-season opener is Wednesday against the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200), with the Montreal Canadiens visiting the capital on Friday evening (7:30 p.m., Rogers 22, Team 1200).