Facing challenge, Konopka raises his game

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2013 - 12:25 AM

Minnesota Wild center Zenon Konopka (28) battles for the puck with Buffalo Sabres center Tyler Ennis (63) on a face off during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Monday, Oct. 14, 2013.

Photo: Gary Wiepert, Associated Press - Ap

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Zenon Konopka might make his living fending off punches to the head, but he’s no dummy.

The veteran center knows the Wild had him on the trading block this past offseason. And he watched the team bring David Steckel to training camp to try out for his fourth-line spot.

So Konopka prepared relentlessly for this season.

“You’ve got to be realistic about what’s going on,” Konopka, 32, said. “My buddies asked if I was worried when Steckel came in. I said, ‘No, I’m confident in my abilities.’ ”

Seven games into the season, Konopka has been one of the Wild’s most pleasant surprises. His role has increased, he’s seeing more penalty-kill time and taking bigger faceoffs.

He has the highest career faceoff winning percentage of any active NHLer (.592) and was winning 72 percent this season entering Tuesday’s meeting with the Maple Leafs.

“I spend a lot of money in figuring out my body and what it takes for me to be ready for a season,” Konopka said. “Last year because of the lockout, I was revved up in September, revved up in November, and then you’re treading water until January and don’t have a full camp, it was just a tough year for me.

“This season, I was ready to roll.”

Konopka spent the last six weeks of the summer working with his skating coach, Paul Lawson, after getting a late start on the ice because of a broken foot. His skating clearly has improved, coach Mike Yeo said.

“There was competition for him too in training camp, and he responded well,” Yeo said. “Good on him recognizing it was an important year for himself. He took that challenge head-on.

“He’s worked hard, and with that, his ice time’s increased.”

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