MONTREAL - Nineteen-year-old Brett Connolly is making a strong push for a spot in the Tampa Bay Lightning's regular-season lineup.
Connolly and Steven Stamkos each scored twice and Dwayne Roloson continued his strong pre-season play as the Lightning shut out the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on Thursday.
"Connolly's just pushing and pushing, and that’s how guys make the NHL. Look at (Jeff) Skinner last year in Carolina–no one was expecting that," said Lightning head coach Guy Boucher. "Every game he was adapting and at some point you have to consider the player might be serious."
Boucher has given the 2010 draft pick (sixth overall) a chance to succeed in recent outings, lining him up with Tampa's top guns. Against Montreal, he completed a unit with Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
The Campbell River, B.C., native entered the night with one goal and three points in three pre-season games. He first added to those totals at the 16:43 mark of the second when he took a shot from the side of the net, and then dove to get his own rebound in front and put it past Peter Budaj.
Connolly scored his second of the night on a late third period power play.
"He's a high pick and you can see all the skills he has. But he's a smart player," St. Louis said. "He's playing within the team concept–that shows maturity within his play. You can't just depend on your offensive flairs in this league anymore; you have to play the whole game and he's done that. Obviously he’s getting rewarded by doing the right things."
He's doing the right things even in high-pressure situations.
"What's happening now is that he’s adapting every time we put him in a more difficult situation with more pressure. If that continues, he could force our hand," Boucher said.
It's a far cry from his training camp a year ago when, partially due to injury, he showed up at camp lacking speed, strength and tried to beat everyone on his own.
"It was tough to evaluate him last year," Boucher said. "To see him this year, big, fast, paying the price and handling the puck at the right times for the right reasons…is more than encouraging. It’s very impressive.
"Since rookie camp, he’s been excellent."
Roloson made 24 saves for the Lightning (3-2-0). Budaj stopped 30 shots for Montreal (1-6-0), suffering his second loss of the pre-season.
"It's frustrating because we made too many mistakes tonight. We didn't compete when we needed. That's the disappointing part," defenceman Josh Gorges said. "We need to get these things out of our system now."
Stamkos got his first goal of the pre-season early in the first. A failed Canadiens clearing attempt saw the puck land in front of Lightning defenceman Bruno Gervais. His shot was stopped by Budaj but bounced out to Stamkos in the slot.
The Lightning sniper added another just over eight minutes later on a delayed Montreal penalty, finishing off a pass from St. Louis.
Tampa appeared to take a 3-0 lead when a Vincent Lecavalier shot trickled through Budaj's pads. The officials whistled the play down, negating the goal.
The Canadiens' chances were there for the taking. Michael Cammalleri hit the post in the first period on a two-on-one with Tomas Plekanec. He later was ready for a break at the Lightning blue-line courtesy of P.K. Subban, only to see the puck bounce over his stick.
There was a two-man advantage for 1:54 midway through the opening period that came up empty. Then, on a late second period power play, David Desharnais set up Cammalleri but the Canadiens winger misfired.
Michael Bournival nearly broke Roloson's shutout with less than six minutes to play, only to see the post take away a potential goal.
"We have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas," said Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin.
Injuries have been a big story in Montreal’s pre-season roster. Four regulars are currently sidelined and it appeared early in the third that one more could be added to the list. With the Canadiens on the penalty kill, Gorges collided with Lightning forward Ryan Shannon in the corner. He fell awkwardly on his surgically-repaired right knee.
“It was a heart-beating moment. I could feel it happening and I couldn’t stop it,”said Gorges, who returned on the following shift.“Thank God nothing happened. It felt pretty good.”
The Canadiens and Lightning will each wrap up their pre-season schedules on Saturday night when they meet again in Quebec City.