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Connolly expects to be ready for opener

Center Tim Connolly is expected to miss his fifth straight preseason game tonight because of a sore back when the Buffalo Sabres play in Detroit. But he defiantly said Saturday he fully expects to play in Friday's season opener against Montreal.

"[It's] 100 percent. Absolutely," Connolly said after practice when asked if he hoped to play in the opener. "I played one preseason game last year and got off to the best start of my career [seven points in the first five games]. If you can play, you can play. I feel great. I'm ready to go out there and compete."

Connolly skated on his own the last couple of days but participated fully in Saturday's practice and, in fact, was one of the last players off the ice. He skated for nearly 90 minutes.

On the road back from hip surgery after a season in which he was limited to 48 games, Connolly has played in just one game so far -- the Sept. 23 loss to Montreal in Roberval, Quebec. He then started feeling pain in his lower back, not related to the surgery, and told the coaching staff he needed to back off for a few days.

"I felt pretty good out there today," Connolly said. "I'm going to continue to work on my conditioning and prepare for the regular season."

Coach Lindy Ruff seemed discouraged with Connolly's progress after practice Friday, noting that "he's got a nagging type injury that doesn't seem to want to go away and he's got to get through it."

But after Connolly got through Saturday's heavy workout with no trouble, Ruff was quite a bit more upbeat.

"He did pretty good," Ruff said. "He was feeling better today and had a good practice.

"I think it's realistic [Connolly could play Friday] but we've got a good week ahead of us."

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The Red Wings are 5-1-2 thus far in the preseason while the Sabres are 2-3-1. This will easily be Buffalo's best test of the exhibition schedule because they're playing their most rugged opponent and doing it with what should be their regular-season lineup.

"It's the Stanley Cup champions in their building and it's going to be a real test for us to see where we're standing," said Jochen Hecht.

"They're a great team and they're actually probably improved when you get a guy like [Marian] Hossa out there added to their roster," added Jason Pominville. "I hope they have their full lineup playing so we get to play against those guys and see where we are against a team like that."

One player who won't be on the ice for the Wings is 46-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios. He is out three to six weeks after suffering a fractured shin bone when he blocked a shot during Tuesday's game at Montreal.

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Adam Mair, who has missed the entire preseason after knee surgery, will return tonight.

Drew Stafford suffered "cauliflower ear," a common wrestling and boxing injury, in a fight Thursday in Columbus and has to stay off the ice until at least Monday.

Stafford, who made need some drainage relieved from the ear, was the only Sabre who did not take the ice Saturday.

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After practice, the players made sure the big-screen TV in the locker room was tuned to the season opener from Prague pitting the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Before meeting the media, Ruff was in his office watching as well.

The Sabres trained for a few days in Austria in 1998 so Ruff said he has an idea what taking the team overseas is like. In addition to the Rangers and Lightning, the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins opened their season Saturday in Stockholm.

"In some ways it's a great experience," Ruff said. "The tough thing is coming back and getting your feet back on the ground over here. The great part is going over there and being able to play. When we went over for training camp that year, it was a great experience.

"In some ways you're envious they've already started and they're over there. Other ways, you're kind of happy you don't have to deal with the travel and other issues coming back."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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