Cory Conacher: How to make (Swedish) friends and influence Maple Leafs fans

After spending his first practice as a member of the Ottawa Senators on a line with Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg Thursday, incoming rookie Cory Conacher says his Swedish definitely needs to improve.

BUFFALO — After spending his first practice as a member of the Ottawa Senators on a line with Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg Thursday, incoming rookie Cory Conacher says his Swedish definitely needs to improve.

“It’s not very good,” said Conacher, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday in a trade for goaltender Ben Bishop. “I was sitting beside (Daniel) Alfredsson and Silfverberg (Thursday) and they were talking. It’s going to be interesting. Maybe I’ll try to learn a few words.”

Conacher, has proven to be a fast learner.

Just ask Canisius College coach Dave Smith, who provided the springboard into professional hockey for Conacher, recruiting him out of Junior B hockey in Burlington when everyone else passed on the player who is generously listed at 5-8 and 176 pounds. Conacher has also successfully battled diabetes.

“After his first day on campus, a fifth year senior came up to us and said he was the best player he had ever played with and that was our first understanding that he was going to be more than just a good player,” said Smith.

“The day before his first game, he broke his wrist. He missed three months and in his first game back, against our big rival, he had three points. And then every year with us he got significantly better, he kept improving. He wants the puck. The puck is the bright light for him.”

Smith recruited Conacher because of his speed, skill and compete level and discovered that there was a “fear of failure” which spurred him to get better at every level.

In his first crack at the American Hockey League in 2011-12, Conacher amassed 80 points and walked away with league MVP honours. After his first three months in the National Hockey League, he’s in the running for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, with nine goals and 14 assists.

Now that he’s with the Senators, acquired in Wednesday’s trade deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning for goaltender Ben Bishop, he’ll be given every opportunity to deliver more points on a line with Swedish rookies Zibanejad and Silfverberg. He’ll also see plenty of power play time.

Conacher flew into Boston late Wednesday to join the Senators for practice at Harvard University Thursday and he says “it was kind of hard to sleep” thinking about the possibility of a long playoff run with the Senators. Conacher is also relishing the opportunity to convert some Toronto Maple Leafs fans into Senators fans.

“I’ve got plenty of text messages saying ‘I guess I can try cheering a little bit for the Senators’ and a lot saying ‘if you guys meet in the playoffs, there’s no way I’m cheering for the Senators’,” Conacher said, with a laugh. “The Senators are a team I grew up watching. I grew up watching (Jason) Spezza because I was a Leafs fan and I wanted the Leafs to beat up on the Senators. It’s obviously changed. I’m a big Senators fan and it’s going to be sweet to play the Leafs again.”

For now, though, he’s aiming to develop quick chemistry with all of his new teammates, including Lehner, the Swedish goaltender. The two had never met before Thursday, but they knew each other well.

When Lehner was playing in Binghamton and Conacher was playing with Syracuse during the lockout, the two were in the middle of a wild brawl. Binghamton led Syracuse 5-0 when Conacher and a few other Syracuse players went hard to the net for a loose puck and to try and rattle Lehner. Lehner left his crease, eventually fought Syracuse goaltender Riku Helenius and was ejected from the game. Syracuse ended up winning 6-5.

“That was one of the first things I mentioned to Lehner, that we had a nice little battle at the start of the year,” Conacher said. “I will remember that game for a long time, but hopefully we can be friends now. He can be a scary, scary goalie to play against and a tough guy, too, because I saw him fight. I don’t want to brag too much because he’ll drop the gloves with me.”

MICHALEK NEARS RETURN

Left winger Milan Michalek won’t play Friday against Buffalo, but after a hard practice with the Senators Thursday, he’s close. Michalek, who had surgery on his right knee two weeks ago, says he feels far more comfortable than he did earlier in the year, when the attempted to play, despite having the knee swell up repeatedly.

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