Cory Conacher looks to prove he belongs in late-season push with Lightning

1:51 | NHL
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Thursday April 6th, 2017

TORONTO—Cory Conacher sat tucked away in the corner of the Air Canada Centre visitor’s dressing room. Beside him, the rock blaring from the speakers almost drowned him out. But one thing rang louder than the sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers: Cory Conacher’s smile.

The Toronto native was called up for his first NHL game since February 23. The center has played just eight NHL games this season after having spent last season with Bern SC in the Swiss League and the majority of 2016-17 with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.

Now the 27-year-old is now part of the cavalry of sorts, a group of players that have been tasked with stepping in for a host of injured Tampa Bay Lightning players and completing an insurmountable job: winning out for the rest of the season and getting the Lightning into the playoffs, against all odds.

And Conacher couldn’t be happier.

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“This is fun,” he said. “I like this type of situation.”

He was referring, of course, to the Lightning’s last three games, two of which come on the road in thursday Toronto and Friday in Montreal. It’s a do-or-die type situation and Conacher isn’t shying away from the opportunity.

“Whether I’m up for one, or three [games] it’s important for me to figure out what type of player I am and be a player in this league,” he said.

Conacher has had a strong season with the Crunch so far, netting 56 points in 54 games. Still, he wants more than just the points he puts up on the scoreboard.

“I would obviously be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated with the way this season’s gone,” he admitted. “I believe I’m good enough to play in this league.”

His offensive spark could be what Tampa Bay needs to topple a Maple Leafs outfit that has been one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.

“Conacher’s had a history of putting the puck in the net,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper. He should know; the 5-foot-8 forward posted 24 points in 35 games with Tampa Bay in 2012-13, his rookie season. The team capitalized on his hot start and traded him to Ottawa in a deal that landed the Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. For Conacher, it was the beginning of a stretch that saw him struggle to gain consistency, bouncing through stints with the Senators to the Buffalo Sabres to the Islanders in 2014-15.

Thursday's game represents more than just an opportunity for a few goals or assists against the team Coacher grew up cheering for. It is a chance, instead, to prove he belongs in the NHL. Before Bern, Conacher played with five professional teams in two seasons, two of them at the AHL level. 

That constant change led to Conacher questioning his future.

“I’d say before I went to Switzerland last year I was doubting whether I could play in the NHL,” he said. “That last year or so, leading up to Switzerland I was up and down and not putting points up in the NHL. That was tough for me. I think I’ve matured a lot in the last few years.”

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The move to Switzerland gave Conacher a new lease on life, of sorts. He led Bern in scoring and helped them win the National League A title.

And it helped him realize that his time in the NHL might not be over.

“It solidified that I’m still young, I still have a chance to play in this league,” he said. “That’s the reason why I came back. I wanted to have no regrets. I wanted to give it one more shot. Obviously it’d be nice to be up a little more than I have been this year but with the way I’m playing in the AHL and especially with Vegas coming in next year, I think there’s still a little time for me to prove myself.”

This final stretch of games with the Lightning don’t leave a lot of time for Conacher to indeed prove himself, but they will mean a chance for him to spend time traveling with his team, something he missed in Switzerland.

Conacher said that because the country was so small there were no road trips and he didn’t bond as much with his teammates away from the rink as you do at the rink. Trips with his wife to France, Germany and Italy were a welcome change but didn’t necessarily fill the hole in Conacher’s life that he missed: road trips with his team and the camaraderie that comes with it.

“That’s how a team is successful,” he said. “If you’re close off the ice, you’ll see it on the ice, how the chemistry is. These road trips are definitely important for a team.”

And on their final road trip of the regular season, building chemistry has never been more important for Conacher and the Bolts.

“It’s kind of been the story for the last two and a half months,” said Cooper. “And every time their backs have been pushed against the wall, they’ve found a way. Tonight, we’re clearly against the wall.”

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