Conacher's tenacity on full display vs. Pens

Pittsburgh -- A scene from Game 1 of the Ottawa Senators-Pittsburgh Penguins series:

Brooks Orpik, the immovable force of the Penguins' blue line, is being assailed by what at first blush appears to be a small boy who has made his way onto the ice in a Senators' jersey.

Upon closer inspection, it is not a small boy, but Ottawa Senators winger Cory Conacher.

At the end of the altercation, Orpik knocks Conacher to the ice with a brisk crosscheck to the chest, as one might dispatch an especially annoying bug.

Unbowed, Conacher continued to agitate his way around the ice, earning a cross-checking penalty after a run-in with Kris Letang and finally exiting the game in the final minute after a dust-up with Brenden Morrow, the CONSOL Energy faithful jeering the diminutive forward as he departed.

"It's all part of the game. It's playoffs. That's kind of the way I play. I like to be in those dirty areas," Conacher said Wednesday, the day after the Senators were downed 4-1 in the opening game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Pittsburgh.

"I like to kind of [tick] off some of their players and get in their heads, and the fans obviously take note of that sometimes. It's all fun for me and hopefully I can continue to do that."

From the very beginning, Conacher's story has been about doing things and going places no one thought he could.

The Burlington, Ontario, native was born with a rare condition wherein his bladder was outside his body, a condition that required complex surgery to reverse. He is also a Type 1 diabetic. Throw in the fact he is only 5-foot-8, and one would imagine his chances of becoming a pro athlete would have been slim.

But Conacher, 23, hasn't just faced long odds, he has thrived on them.

He attended Canisius College in Buffalo and then, undrafted, signed as a free agent with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. He lit up the AHL, leading the league in scoring and earning MVP honors as a rookie in 2011-12, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning's farm team to a Calder Cup title.

After starting this season in the AHL, Conacher joined the Lightning after the lockout ended and was among the most productive NHL rookies before he was traded to Ottawa in a deadline deal that saw netminder Ben Bishop go to Tampa Bay.

"The kid has a lot of passion," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who coached Conacher in the AHL and then in Tampa, told ESPN.com Wednesday.

"It works for him in a lot of ways and it works against him," Cooper said. "There's a reason we dubbed him the 'Honey Badger.'"

With Jason Spezza still out with a back injury and Milan Michalek hobbled, Ottawa has had to rely on the productivity of young players like Conacher throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs.

"He's unbelievably tenacious. There's no quit in him," Cooper added. "There is no player that is too big for him."

While Conacher shares the team postseason lead with three goals, one a game winner, the playoffs represent a difficult forum in which to learn the game, and there have been missteps.

Conacher was a healthy scratch in Game 2 against Montreal. Then in Game 4, he was on the wrong end of a turnover that led directly to a goal. He atoned for the mistake with a goal of his own later in the game, but afterward Conacher told reporters it was one of the worst games he'd ever played and he was relieved to have gotten a chance to make up for his poor play.

"What I liked most about him was his honesty," national analyst and former NHL player Keith Jones told ESPN.com.

While Conacher might not skate as well as Boston’s Brad Marchand -- another small, agitating offensive player -- Jones said he likes Conacher’s offensive smarts.

"And that should serve him well as his career progresses," Jones said.

The Senators certainly seem pleased with what they're getting from Conacher. Indeed, head coach Paul MacLean said he'd like to see a little more of Conacher's grit in some of the team's other players.

"We've been very pleased with his evolution. He was a good player when we got him. As advertised, he's a very competitive person and his heart is bigger than his size a lot of times," MacLean said. "But at the same time, he's very competitive and he works hard to score goals and he goes to the dirty areas to have an opportunity to score, and those are the things that we like about him.

"And those are things that we continue to need to see from him, and I thought he was in there and competitive and battled at the net last night, and we need more people that'll do that."

Conacher admitted this season has provided lots of emotional highs and lows.

He enjoyed playing for Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher, who was fired late in the regular season. And he enjoyed playing for Cooper, with whom he had enjoyed terrific success.

"I guess fortunately, but unfortunately, it was me that had to get traded. It was the first time in my career I've ever been traded from a team, so it was definitely a different experience. But it was actually a lot easier than I expected, the process coming here to Ottawa," he said.

Conacher understands that his style of play is always going to have a yin and yang element to it, that there is a line his aggressiveness can approach, but not cross. Or at least not cross too often.

"I think I've always had that little bit of edge and attitude to my game. It's kind of the reason why I've been able to make it this far," he said.

"I want to keep that little bit of an edge because I think it can be effective. I can't go over that line where I'm taking myself out of the game. If I'm in the box for four or six, eight, 10 minutes in a game that's not where I want to be," he said.

Beyond the game itself, there remains something inspiring about players such as Conacher, who do not let obstacles stand in their way, whether they be related to medical issues or simply being what most could consider too small to play in the NHL.

"It's a really cool story. I'm a big fan of Cory Conacher, not only as a person but as a player. I'm rooting for him every night," said Dave Smith, who coached Conacher for four years at Canisius.

"He doesn't realize he's only five 5-foot-8,” Smith said. “He’s very aware of what he does well and what he doesn't do well. For him it's always about the puck."