Tiny Conner huge hit
Penguins forward Chris Conner takes a knee to the face from Columbus Blue Jackets' Jan Hejda in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday. Assistant coach Tony Granato calls the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Conner "gritty."
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Chris Conner of the Penguins stands 5 feet 8 and weighs 180 pounds.
Coincidentally enough, so does Dustin Byfuglien's right leg.
Seemed to have the makings of a mismatch, then, when Conner and Byfuglien -- an Atlanta defenseman who checks in at 6 feet 5, 265 pounds -- found themselves competing for a puck Thursday in the Penguins' 3-2 victory at Consol Energy Center.
All those vital statistics, however, didn't add up quite the way one might have anticipated.
"[Conner] dumped the puck in, and he and Byfuglien were going back for the puck," Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato said. "He bumped into [Byfuglien] and got some space for himself.
"He's gritty. The little kid has a lot of courage, to stand in there."
- Matchup: New Jersey Devils at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Johan Hedberg for Devils.
- Penguins: Have won past five games at home, NHL's longest active streak. ... C Sidney Crosby has two or more points in 11 of past 17 games. ... Have been credited with 131 takeaways, third fewest in league.
- Devils: Have lost five consecutive games on road, where they are 4-10. ... LW Brian Rolston does not have goal in past nine games. ... Road power play was 1 for 43 before going 2 for 3 at Philadelphia Saturday.
- Hidden stat: Devils' goal differential of minus-31 is worst in NHL./li>
Coach Dan Bylsma described that sequence as, "a small guy giving a big guy a lot of trouble," and, while it's not as if Conner dropped Byfuglien with a right cross -- heck, he'd have to stand on a teammate's shoulder just to get a shot at Byfuglien's jaw -- it did reinforce the idea that of Conner's 68 inches of stature, roughly 67 are taken up by his heart.
That's a big part of the reason the Penguins promoted him from their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre when they needed a forward last month. And why, if they ever get completely healthy and have to pare someone from the major league roster to get down to the limit of 23, returning Conner to the Baby Penguins wouldn't necessarily be the default solution.
Conner has become an integral part of an effective third line over the past few weeks. He and linemates Mark Letestu (5 feet 11, 195 pounds) and Tyler Kennedy (5 feet 11, 183 pounds) won't intimidate anyone with their size, but already have overwhelmed a few opponents with their tenacity.
"Other teams look at them and say, 'OK, they're undersized, so physically, we can dominant them,' " Granato said. "You can't dominate them physically.
"They've driven teams nuts in the offensive zone. They've fit really nice together. Usually, you don't see lines where all the guys are undersized, but they've been a real nice unit."
Granato oversees the Penguins' forwards, so skeptics might suspect his assessment isn't entirely objective.
Well, Brooks Orpik isn't a coach, and he isn't a forward. And, for that matter, he hadn't even been asked about the third line when he offered this evaluation of Conner and his co-workers Saturday:
"That third line has been awesome for us. They probably should have a few more goals than they do, but their energy level and battle level has filtered down, right through the lineup."
OK, so maybe that hasn't been the most important factor in the nine-game winning streak the Penguins will take into their game against New Jersey tonight at Consol Energy Center -- Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury and exceptional special-teams play are prominent on that list -- but that unit's performance should not be overlooked.
Modest as Conner's stats -- two goals and an assist in 12 games -- are since he arrived from Wilkes-Barre, his feistiness, skating, skill and willingness to work have made him a good fit with Letestu and Kennedy.
"He understands his role, he understands what he needs to do," Granato said. "He's been competitive, he's been physical, he's been strong on the puck and, positionally, he's been very sound."
Mind you, Conner had little choice if he wanted to be here long enough to learn his way around the new building because several Wilkes-Barre forwards would not be out of place at this level.
Couple that reality with Conner's desire to continue drawing an NHL paycheck, and he has no trouble getting motivated to go to work.
"Obviously, I want to play in the NHL," he said. "With every opportunity, I know I need to bring my best, go out there and play every game like it's Game 7."
Conner has done that for the past dozen games, just as the Penguins were hoping when he was summoned.
"He fits in very well with what we're asking him to do, and that's all you can ask for," Granato said. "I think he's been great. He's added something we needed."
As long as Conner does that, it's hard to imagine he'll lose his place here. Not that he has much control over how long he stays, other than trying to convince management that the Penguins' 11-0-1 record with him in the lineup isn't entirely a coincidence.
"I'm not worried about it," Conner said. "That's just the way it is. I just have to do my part, play well and do what I can to bring success to the team."
First Published December 6, 2010 12:00 am