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Conner making most of opportunity

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

With all the injuries suffered by Dallas Stars forwards this season, the organization’s depth has been severely tested, but several players who have been plugged into the lineup have taken their opportunities to heart and delivered impressive performances under difficult circumstances.

One such player is speedy winger Chris Conner. In his third professional season, Conner, 25, has stepped in and filled important minutes on the third and fourth lines this season. After bouncing up and down between the NHL and the AHL for most of the last three years, Conner has been a fixture in the Dallas lineup since the beginning of March. 

In 32 NHL contests overall in 2008-09, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Conner has scored one goal (his first career game-winner in a 4-2 victory at Detroit Jan. 29) and set career highs with nine assists and 10 points, while averaging 10:59 of ice time per outing. The native of Westland, Michigan has also dished out 28 hits, an impressive number for a feisty little waterbug.

“He’s really given us a lot of energy, good positive energy,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “These games are so tight, he takes time and space away, he’s kind of a sparkplug for us and he’s played very well. He’s played left wing and right wing and each game, he’s really given us a spark in key situations. We look for him to keep doing that.”

“I’m just going out there and trying to use my speed to my advantage and keep my feet moving in the corners and stuff so the guys can’t pin me up and take the puck,” said Conner, who spent four years at Michigan Tech University before signing as a free agent with the Iowa Stars in March 2006. “I’ve just got to keep getting more shots to the net and do whatever I can to help the team win.”

Lately, with the club’s roster decimated by so many ailments, Conner has been pressed into a bit more of a prominent role. Tuesday night, he fired three shots on goal while skating on a line with recently-acquired centers Brendan Morrison and Steve Begin in a 5-2 loss to Vancouver. Over the last nine contests, Conner has averaged 11:09 of ice time, while registering two assists and generating numerous scoring chances.

“He’s a small, solid guy, really fast, probably created more turnovers for us the last few games,” said center Mike Ribeiro. “A lot of speed, good forechecker, he’s been helping us a lot and we’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s doing and create chances and work hard like he’s doing.”

“It’s no secret he’s got great wheels, it’s probably his best asset,” Morrison noted, “so when he’s skating, he’s a dangerous guy out there, he can get in on the forecheck, he can track down loose pucks and he’s a threat to defensemen to back off, so he creates room. He’s a guy that works hard every night. He comes to work, he punches in. I think he has a little bit more offensive upside than what he’s shown so far. I think it’s a matter of just getting comfortable and given a bit of an opportunity.”

Conner has shown flashes of his considerable skills since he made his NHL debut in Dec. 2006, and even led the club in scoring (and finished third in the entire league) during the 2007 pre-season with two goals and nine points, but has had difficulty maintaining consistency. He seems to have finally taken a step forward in that department as he appears to have gained some more confidence from the coaching staff.

“He’s always been a little sparkplug, but his skating, you really notice him when he’s out on the ice,” said assistant coach Mark Lamb. “He’s the type of guy, he does have a lot of speed, and if he shows his speed, he’s doing something good. He’s been in and out of the lineup and it’s hard for a player like that to come in and out, but he’s probably getting a little more ice time now and that’s why we’re noticing him more. He’s getting the ice time and he’s doing something with it and that’s all you can ask from players like that.”

“I just kind of feel more confidence, not so nervous,” Conner said of his recent performance. “I think it’s just a little bit more confidence, just going out there and playing my game instead of thinking too much and when you think too much, you kind of don’t do anything.”

His teammates have noticed a more polished and poised player since his stints the previous two seasons at AHL Iowa and this year at AHL Peoria.

“You’re starting to see him play the way he did in Iowa,” said rookie James Neal, who skated alongside Conner in the AHL last season. “I saw him last year, played with him a bit, and saw the ability he had and how confident he was in the American League. He was coming up, he was getting a little bit of a shot, but he really wasn’t coming out with his true colors, but now he’s starting to show the way he can play and how capable he is to be a player in this league.”

“He’s been up and down, and every time he comes up, he’s playing well and just waiting for his chance,” noted Ribeiro. “This is a good chance and he’s playing a little bit more this year. I’m just happy for him. Hopefully he can help us down the stretch and help the team.” 

While he’s bounced around from line to line and has had numerous different linemates during the course of the season, Conner, who collected 16 goals and 28 points in 30 AHL games with Peoria, still tries to maintain the same objectives.

“You know different players play differently,” he said, “and you kind of know how they play, so you can adapt and at the same time, I just need to play my game with speed and it will all work out.”

“He brings speed and he’s an easy guy to play with because he retrieves pucks so well,” Neal said. “He’s a little guy, but he’s so solid on his feet and so strong and you just got to put the puck in the perimeter on his side and he’s going to be able to pick it up. Obviously, he’s probably wanted to be producing more offensively, but he’s getting a chance now and he’s starting to do good things. He’s got the confidence now. He’s easy to play with and he’s a guy you want to play with.”

For his part, Conner just wants to keep moving forward and part of that process means helping the Stars string together enough victories down the stretch to qualify for the post-season.

“I’m just playing just like I always have,” said Conner, who suited up for one playoff contest last spring, against Detroit in the Western Conference Finals. “There’s been some injuries here so I’ve been able to play a little bit more, but we’ve got to keep winning and make the playoffs, it’ll be a fun ride.”

“He’s another player that’s taken an opportunity because of the injuries and used the opportunity to his benefit,” Tippett said. “If he plays well, he’s going to be in the lineup. That’s just the way it is.” 

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