GLENDALE, Ariz. — He was on the ice in the game’s first minute. He was on the ice in the game’s final minute. He was “a little red in the face” sometime in between. And he was on waivers five-and-a-half weeks ago.
Defenseman Kevin Connauton played a career-high 31:11 on Saturday night in his team’s 6-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues at Gila River Arena. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is earning his coach’s trust and beginning to settle into his role as a reliable defender.
Connauton recorded his second career three-point night on Saturday, scoring the only goal of the second period and adding a pair of primary assists in the third. His minutes were boosted by an injury to fellow defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson early in the first period, but Connauton took full advantage of the opportunity he was given.
“You just have to fill in the gaps when a guy goes down — work as hard as you can to play well in those minutes,” Connauton said. “Every opportunity they give me I want to make the most of. I’m working hard to do my best at that.”
Solid play from the Edmonton native is starting to become a trend. Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said Connauton and Michael Stone were Arizona’s best defensive pairing in a 6-3 victory against the Dallas Stars on Thursday. That effort was enough to earn the pair the start against the Blues, and Tippett was pleased with the results.
“He was all over the game,” Tippett said of Connauton. “I was bugging him after the second period. I said ‘his face is a little red.'”
Playful humor aside, Connauton successfully shouldered the burden of leading a short-handed blue line missing its best player.
“I give him credit, he hung in there and gave us everything’s he’s got. I’ve got some other guys that can take a lesson from that,” Tippett said.
Playing in his 14th game with the Coyotes, Connauton is starting to feel comfortable with his new team after being waived by the Columbus Blue Jackets in mid-January.
“It’s a great group of guys in here,” Connauton said. “Everyone really wants to win and it’s nice to be in a locker room like that because we’re all hungry to win and we all want to make the postseason.
“I want to (make the postseason) with this group. I want to be a part of that.”
It wasn’t all roses and sunshine for Connauton against the Blues. He deflected a Carl Gunnarsson shot into his own net in the first period to extend St. Louis’ lead to 4-1, briefly chasing goaltender Louis Domingue from the game. However, it was a mistake he atoned for with his offensive output.
The Coyotes need the efforts shown by Connauton over the last two games to continue as the team begins a pivotal five-game road trip on Monday. The Coyotes are five points out of a playoff spot and won’t return to Glendale until March.
The path to the postseason doesn’t get any easier once Arizona returns from its Eastern Conference road trip. The Coyotes face second-toughest remaining strength of schedule of any team in the NHL and may be forced to take on that tall task without Ekman-Larsson.