OTTAWA – The Stanley Cup playoffs are all about opportunity.
Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka are taking full advantage as the Ottawa Senators find themselves tied 2-2 in their first-round series with New York Rangers.
Much of the credit can be attributed to their bruising duo.
Carkner and Konopka were inserted into the lineup following a Game 1 loss where the Senators were pushed around at times.
“Those guys are real hard-nosed guys, their game is built for the playoffs,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza. “This is really a dogfight of a series where it’s not really pretty hockey out there, it’s just workman-like and those two guys, it suits their game and so they’ve both come in and made a big impact.”
Carkner went after Rangers forward Brian Boyle in the opening minutes of Game 2 after he roughed up star Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson in the opener. The big Sens blue-liner earned a game misconduct and a one-game suspension, but his actions helped spur Ottawa to a 3-2 overtime victory.
Konopka, meanwhile, has been in the face of the Rangers for the last three games, including centre Brad Richards and goalie Henrik Lundqvist, while at the same time taking key faceoffs and playing important minutes.
In the Senators’ thrilling 3-2 overtime victory Wednesday that tied the series, Carkner set up Ottawa’s opening goal, while Konopka won 73 per cent of his draws.
But most importantly, it’s the energy the two bring to the lineup.
“I’m really proud of both those guys,” said winger Nick Foligno. “I thought Matt played outstanding (Wednesday). He’s kind of been our hero in the sense he came in for Game 2 and set the tone against Boyle and yesterday he makes a huge play to (Milan) Michalek to set up our first goal. We kind of started rolling from there. He’s been a big factor in these playoffs for us.
“Zenon’s done a great job in the faceoffs, been gritty and solid on the penalty kill and when you get contributions like that from those guys it picks the rest of us up and makes us want to work that much harder.”
That Carkner and Konopka were healthy scratches to open the series came as little surprise considering neither played much down the stretch. The two were in the press box for 20 of the Senators’ final 26 games.
“It’s the first time in my career that I was a healthy scratch multiple games in a row,” Carkner said. “I just had to learn how to deal with that, learn how to get over that. The good thing is we had a great group of guys in here helping me out with that. It’s a tough situation to be in, but I tried to be positive.
Senators coach Paul MacLean, whose team will take on the Rangers in New York on Saturday night, believes the fact his players were able to remain focused while not playing is a huge reason for their current success.
“I think it speaks volumes of what type of character they have and what team players they are,” said MacLean, who also felt Bobby Butler’s contributions couldn’t be overlooked. “They’re getting their opportunity now and they’re ready to do it. They came into the lineup and they’re ready to play and I think that’s a great compliment to them.”
Butler came in for Game 3 to replace the injured Daniel Alfredsson and MacLean was quick to praise his efforts as well.
Despite playing 250 NHL games Konopka, had yet to take part in playoff action. He finished third in the league with 193 penalty minutes this season and has often been viewed as one-dimensional.
When MacLean chose to insert Konopka into the lineup for Game 2, there was no doubt that it was to add more grit to the lineup. But he also brings high energy and it was for that reason that the 31-year-old saw playing time on the top unit with Spezza and Michalek in Game 4.
Konopka has always prided himself on his work ethic and is making sure to enjoy this latest opportunity.
“You always want to be in the lineup,” he said. “It’s awesome playing and contributing and I always say there’s no better feeling than winning in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re playing or what level you’re playing, it’s an unbelievable, awesome high and hopefully we get that feeling again Saturday.”
Like Konopka, Carkner is enjoying the attention, but is more focused on contributing to the team’s success.
“Each game there’s a different guy stepping up,” said Carkner. “That’s why I like our group. Everyone’s competing and any given night anyone can be the hero.”
Notes: The Senators enjoyed a day off the ice. C Jesse Winchester remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury. … Alfredsson remains day-to-day, but MacLean said the Senators captain has been working out and could skate with the team Friday. Still, there remains no timetable for his return.