by Don Brennan |
Logic would seem to dictate otherwise, but the Edmonton Oilers really didn’t do the Portland Pirates any favors at all this week.
Hence, they didn’t do a thing for Zenon Konopka‘s bid to win the American Hockey League playoff scoring crown, either.
Konopka, the former Ottawa 67’s captain who this spring was the Maine Man in Portland, still leads all AHL post-season scorers with 11 goals and 18 assists in 19 games. But his one-point lead over Milwaukee Admirals sniper Darren Haydar will disappear just as sure as the Pirates were eliminated by the Hershey Bears in Game 7 of the semi-finals on Tuesday night.
"Figure that one out, eh?" Konopka, whose reputation is more of a grinder, said yesterday of the lofty perch on which he sits. "We didn’t have much depth in the playoffs, so it went on the shoulders of a few of us. If we scored, we moved on. If we didn’t, we lost. So we had no choice."
The Pirates were trailing Hershey in the series 3-1 when Portland — resembling the underdog 67’s team Konopka led to a Memorial Cup berth in Regina five years ago — clawed its way back to even ground.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Pirates received a huge boost heading into the deciding game.
After Edmonton’s swift, five-game elimination of Anaheim in the NHL’s Western Conference final, the Ducks brass sent three of the organizations top prospects back to the minors for a little more playoff hockey.
Just like that, the load on the shoulders of Konopka, Ryan Shannon and Shane O’Brien was lightened significantly by the arrival of Dustin Penner, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
Penner scored twice and Perry had another in the 5-4 overtime loss to Hershey, but the way the rest of the Pirates behaved, it was as though so much more was expected from the cavalry.
"They kind of changed the complexion of our team," said Konopka. "It was like we played too loose with those guys back."
Pirates coach Kevin Dineen, who skated for the Ottawa Senators during Konopka’s second year under Brian Kilrea, did some natural second guessing after the series. He told Konopka he probably should have played him with Penner, rather than keep the three Ducks on the same line.
TEAMED WITH PENNER
As Konopka’s winger in Portland throughout the season, Penner had 39 goals and 45 assists in 57 games.
His performance after 19 regular season and 13 playoff games for Anaheim suggests that not only is he in the NHL to stay, but that the 6-foot-4, 243-pounder from Winkler, Man., is set to become the game’s next dominant power forward.
Clearly, Senators coach Bryan Murray had a strong hunch about Penner in 2004.
Then the Ducks GM, Murray gave the undrafted, awkward and slow skating winger $400,000 to rip up his scholarship at the University of Maine after one year and sign and start a pro career with the team’s AHL affiliate, which was in Cincinnati at the time. Talk about a diamond in the rough.
"We all knew toward the end of last year that he was going to be a special kid just as soon as he found out how good he is," said Konopka. "He still doesn’t realize it.
"He’s got good hands and a better shot. He almost has to get a little meaner, but he will.
"I think he might turn into the next (Todd) Bertuzzi."
Meanwhile, Konopka’s future is up in the air.
In 23 games with the Ducks, he had four goals, three assists and 48 penalty minutes while establishing himself as a solid fourth line centre — impressive enough for a kid was never considered talented or fast enough to make it to The Show.
After a high ankle sprain sidelined him for eight weeks, he was supposed to return to Anaheim, but never did.
Now, as he is about to become a restricted free agent, Konopka will certainly receive the qualifying offer that enables the soaring Ducks to retain his rights. An added attraction for the team will no doubt be the fact that, as a 25-year-old who has only had an NHL deal for two years, Konopka doesn’t have to clear waivers to be sent down.
His odds of starting next season with the parent club would seem remote. The Ducks, already set down the middle, are now rumored to be targeting free-agent Joe Sakic this summer.
"All they said to me was they’re happy with the year I had and they’re going to contact me soon about a contract," said Konopka, who will soon head back to his family’s home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "I’m curious to see what will happen.
"You’ve got to think that (Anaheim) is going to win a Cup in the next five years. I can look at my personal situation all I want, but in the end you get a deal signed your agent thinks is fair, then you work as hard as you can.
"And hopefully things work out. They usually do, sooner or later."
Don Brennan is a columnist for the Ottawa Sun and SLAM! Sports