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Emotions? McKee can't block them Ex-Sabre savors return with Blues SABRES VS. BLUES: Faceoff: 7 p.m. * HSBC Arena TV: MSG * Radio: 550 AM * Last season: Blues, 1-0

Jay McKee hasn't changed. Quick with a laugh off the ice, eager to block a shot on it, he still possesses the qualities that made him a Western New York favorite.

Need proof? Well, today's your lucky day. McKee is back in town, and he's looking forward to seeing as many old friends as he can.

There will be 18,690 waiting in HSBC Arena. The Buffalo Sabres host St. Louis tonight, and it's a long-awaited outing for McKee and Blues teammate Lee Stempniak. McKee hasn't played in Buffalo since Game Six of the 2006 Eastern Conference finals, while West Seneca's Stempniak has never played professionally in his hometown.

"It's special," McKee said Tuesday. "I was very fortunate to grow not only as a player but as a person here in this town. To come back and play here is going to be a pretty neat feeling. The fans were great, stuck behind me over the 10 years I was here, and that doesn't always happen with players. I felt very fortunate for that."

Both players made a brief stopover at the Blues' downtown hotel before heading out. McKee was waiting for his wife, Nicole, to arrive so they could get to their area home, while Stempniak was hustling to get to dinner with his family.

"I'm trying to take it as just another day," Stempniak said. "I'm trying to stay as even as I can."

McKee already has learned that on days like this, it's no use. The defenseman, who played for the Sabres from 1996 to 2006, faced his former team in St. Louis last year. McKee was full of nerves heading into the game. Then he skated onto the ice.

"You know what? It was more fun than anything," McKee said. "It had a different feeling to it, and I just went out and had fun looking at some of the guys. I remember every time Danny [Briere] and I were on the ice, we'd just look at each other and laugh.

"[Tonight] I think will be more of the same, just being here in front of the crowd that had a chance to watch me grow from an 18-year-old to a 28-, 29-year-old. They've shared in all the great moments of exciting playoff runs, the down years of not making the playoffs and the lockout, so I've been through a lot with this city."

The laughs started early for McKee on Tuesday. As the team plane bounced through the gusty, snowy, frigid air during the afternoon, the Blues kidded him with a sarcastic, "Welcome home."

McKee also joked about a recent trade rumor, one that built so much steam Blues President John Davidson had to denounce it. The talk had McKee getting shipped back to Buffalo for Maxim Afinogenov.

"I thought it was kind of humorous," McKee said. "Max has been a good friend of mine for a long time, so I found that kind of funny."

However, it hasn't been all good times for McKee in St. Louis. He signed a four-year, $16 million deal in the summer of 2006, but injuries limited him to just 23 games last year.

The worst was yet to come. McKee was a healthy scratch Nov. 13 against Detroit. Then he was a healthy scratch Nov. 16 against Columbus. The 30-year-old was forced to watch five straight games before finally returning to play the last two.

"I was really, really angry for a few days with being a healthy scratch," he said. "I've played long enough to know when you're [playing bad enough to be] scratched, and when you're playing just OK, and when you're playing great. And I certainly didn't think I was playing bad enough to be a healthy scratch.

"I wasn't very happy about it for a few days, and then I just kind of resorted to, 'I can only control what I can do,' and I was working hard every day. So I got back in the lineup, and I feel like I've been playing as good as I've ever played."

McKee remains a proven shot-blocker. He led the NHL during his final season in Buffalo, and his 36 this year are second on the Blues behind Barret Jackman's 38 -- and McKee has played nine fewer games.

One thing McKee shouldn't have to deflect tonight are jeers. It's likely to be a warm homecoming.

"It'll be interesting to see what kind of reception it is," McKee said. "It's going to be a neat day."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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