Tim Connolly might have turned the corner on the path to recovery.
Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff revealed Monday morning the mothballed center finally might be free of symptoms from the concussion suffered nearly nine months ago.
Ruff suggested Connolly could be back by mid-March. It was a loose timetable, but the first the Sabres have given for Connolly's long-awaited return.
Connolly skated on his own before his teammates practiced in the Amherst Pepsi Center. His workout was relatively vigorous, and he reported no ill side effects.
Ruff expressed optimism "based on him looking like he could be symptom-free now. That was based on him skating [Monday morning]. He skated hard for 20 to 30 minutes."
The Sabres need to have a handle on Connolly within the next couple of weeks. The Sabres would be up against the salary cap if Connolly can play. If he remains on long-term injured reserve, the club will be able to use his $2.9 million cap number to make moves before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
"It is encouraging," Ruff said. "He's had some workout at max heart rate and there hasn't been any setbacks. I look at it that way, that if he keeps going down that road we'll get him on a schedule where we can plan to have him back in -- I don't know -- six weeks, eight weeks, something like that."
When pressed about Connolly's timetable, Ruff backed off somewhat.
"I can't put a date on it," Ruff said. "I'm just saying from a conditioning standpoint you can guesstimate where you can be if things keep progressing. I can throw that [six to eight weeks] out there. It could be sooner, it could be later."
The mere suggestion Connolly might play this season was a cheerful development for a struggling team.
"We all know what kind of player he is and what a breakthrough year he had last year and how important he was to our regular and postseason last year," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "He'd be a big boost for us."
Connolly, who signed a three-year, $8.7 million contract over the summer, is coming back from the second major concussion. He missed all of 2003-04 with a similar head injury.
Ruff said Connolly is understandably apprehensive.
"There's fear there at the same time," Ruff said, "but he's excited to get back on [the ice] and get the heart rate going and shoot some pucks. It's going to be a daily event now where we're going to try to work him back into shape."
Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder is expected to play tonight against the Boston Bruins in HSBC Arena. He has missed 11 games with a sprained ankle but couldn't bring himself to watch from the stands or on television.
"It's always a struggle," said Tallinder, who also missed 24 games with a broken forearm. "I can hardly watch the games when I'm hurt. It's too painful."
Winger Thomas Vanek didn't practice a second straight day because of the flu. His status could affect how Ruff uses defenseman Nathan Paetsch.
Ruff said he's considering Paetsch at forward to keep him in the lineup. Paetsch normally would be the odd man out with Tallinder coming back, but Paetsch has helped reinvigorate the power play.
"Nathan can play some forward," Ruff said. "You ask him, he'll play anywhere. He'll go between the pipes if that means he gets to dress."
Ruff said center Jiri Novotny is recovering well from the sprained ankle he suffered Jan. 19.
"He's coming along pretty quick," Ruff said. "I would anticipate it moving along fairly rapidly now, where maybe in the next couple days you see him go through a full practice."