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O’Connor Hitting His Stride at Right Time



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

CRANBERRY — Drew O’Connor got word Sunday evening that the Pittsburgh Penguins had a spot for him on their major-league roster.

Jeff Carter had suffered an unspecified lower-body injury during their 3-1 loss in Seattle Saturday, and Teddy Blueger isn’t eligible to leave the Long-Term Injured List until Saturday, so the Penguins had an opening between Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen on their third line.

And, Mike Sullivan said after practice Monday, O’Connor seemed like the right guy to fill it.

“His last three games, he’s been one of (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s) best players, if not their best,” Sullivan said. “He’s played very well. Obviously, with (Carter) being out right now, we needed another center iceman. And, specifically, we need a center iceman who can kill penalties.”

The timing of Carter’s injury was fortuitous for O’Connor, because if he had gotten hurt much earlier, it might not have been O’Connor’s phone that rang Sunday. There simply hadn’t been much about his play early in the season that merited a promotion.

“I think I wasn’t at my best, early on,” he said. “I could have been a little better in camp, and those first few games in Wilkes(-Barre). But I think I’ve kind of gotten back to what I do best the last few games.”

The issue during the early days of the season, he added, was that, “I wasn’t hunting pucks as much as I can, getting in on the forecheck. Making the plays I know I can make.”

His game appears to be in synch now, however, and after skating with Heinen and Kapanen during the Penguins’ workout at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, he presumably will be there when the Pittsburgh Penguins face Boston Tuesday at 8:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

It’s not realistic to expect an instant, seamless transition from Carter to O’Connor, because adapting to a new center — or pair of wingers — generally takes time. Sometimes just a little. Sometimes more than a coach is willing to give the group to mesh.

“It kind of depends,” O’Connor said. “Sometimes, you get put with someone and it just kind of clicks right away. Sometimes, it might take a little bit longer. The longer you play with anyone, you get to know their game a bit more, and definitely get that comfort level.”

He volunteered that Heinen and Kapanen have “a lot of speed, good offensive instincts” and that his approach to working alongside them will be to “just kind of play off how they like to play.”

O’Connor is a left-handed shot, while Carter is a righty. That means O’Connor likely will be passing on his forehand to Kapanen and to Heinen on his backhand, although no one seems to see that as an issue of consequence.

“I don’t think it makes any difference,” Heinen said.

Perhaps not, but there is at least one area in which Carter and O’Connor are dramatically different:¬†Carter is 37 and has appeared in 1,179 NHL games, which is 1,147 more than O’Connor, 24.

“(Carter) has that veteran presence,” Kapanen said. “You can’t compare (O’Connor) to a guy like that.”

True enough, although O’Connor, who has three goals and three assists in his 32 career games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, does have some qualities that could allow him to be a good fit with Kapanen and Danton Heinen.

“He’s a straight-line guy,” Heinen said. “He can skate, get up and down the ice, get in on the forecheck. He can also make plays. Big, strong kid. It will be fun.”

And perhaps all of that will be evident from the first few shifts O’Connor takes in his new role.

“Sometimes, you click with a guy and things happen right away,” Heinen said. “And sometimes, it takes a while. … Hopefully, it happens quick.”

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1 month ago

Quickly, yes hopefully.