Brett Connolly drifted back ever so slightly, found a small seam above the crease and, as the puck came to his stick, picked the top far corner and drilled a shot into that exact location.
A goal-scorer’s goal, from a natural goal scorer.
“He put that in a short area, put it top shelf where he needed to put it,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Finding the back of the net, however, was a long time coming at the NHL level for the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft, as Connolly snapped a 54-game drought Thursday that dated to Nov. 17, 2011.
Though it’s not an indication that right wing Connolly is here to stay — he was reassigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League along with Tyler Johnson on Friday — it’s a step in that direction. The 20-year-old struggled at times last season as a rookie, but he has started to rebuild his confidence.
“I was getting a ton of chances, and finally one went in for me,’’ said Connolly, who played in five games with Tampa Bay after being recalled April 3. “I’m still young, but I want to be a contributor every night, and confidence is a big part of my game. It should help moving forward here and hopefully it will happen more often than not.’’
That renewed confidence in his game comes from a strong season with AHL Syracuse, where he was named a second-team all-star Thursday. With 27 goals and 57 points in 67 games, Connolly’s path appears straight and narrow. His time spent with Cooper in the AHL helped set that course.
“He’s gone from a perimeter player playing on the outside to somebody that drives the net and wants the puck,’’ Cooper said. “He’s put up big-time points in the American League now. And for somebody not to make the all-star game in the American League and end the year as a second-team all-star, that’s some pretty good growth.’’
Knowing Connolly’s game has improved allowed the Lightning to move potential Calder Trophy candidate Cory Conacher at the trade deadline for goaltender Ben Bishop.
“As the year has gone on, he has really progressed,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said. “The American League is a difficult league, and I’ve watched the progression of him from the beginning of the year up until (the call-up). …He’s physically stronger, stronger in his puck protection, has the puck a lot making plays and getting a lot of ice time in a lot of areas.’’
Scoring goals with Syracuse helped Connolly regain his confidence as he played in all situations.
“I’m more confident with the puck,” Connolly said. “And having that year under my belt, I knew what the league was about. I go to Syracuse and (Cooper) has me playing the right way all the time and consistent, be good defensively.
“I found myself last year not being good defensively, and that hurt me in the end. I wasn’t playing as much as I would have liked, but now I’m playing a more well-rounded game, I think.’’
Connolly’s progress has veered off course a few times in the past. A hip injury during his draft year cost him all but 16 games and set back his development. Then last year, he made the Lightning out of training camp and showed flashes early in the season, but struggled with his game and ended up with just four goals and 15 points in 68 games.
In hindsight, spending all season in the NHL — he was ineligible to play in the AHL last season — might have done as much harm as good for Connolly’s development. But now that road appears to be smoother, even if he might not quite be ready for those top minutes with the big club yet.
“He’s come in here and gotten better every game; he’s coming,’’ Cooper said. “I don’t know where he is. Is he a full-time NHL player right now? I’m not so sure yet, but the American League has done wonders for him and he’s going to be a good player in this league soon.’’