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Despite nagging injuries, Connolly still considered a difference maker

Center Tim Connolly has played less than half of the Buffalo Sabres' regular-season games in the three seasons since the NHL lockout. Most fans think his three-year, $8.7 million contract signed in 2006 was a colossal mistake and seem glad his $3.5 million is coming off the books after this season.

Connolly played just 48 games last year before getting shut down for hip surgery. He came to training camp in what he called the best shape of his career but developed a nagging back problem and played in just one preseason game.

It seems like more of the same-old, same-old, with Connolly a daily question mark rather than an old reliable.

But no one in the Sabres' locker room dismisses Connolly. Quite the opposite. He's considered a key player who could make the difference in the team getting back to the playoffs. How can that be?

Take this quick quiz: Who was sixth on the team in scoring (40 points) and third in assists (33) last season? Who was fourth in home scoring (29) and third in home assists (24)? Yep, No. 19.

Connolly knows he's important and he's determined to make a season-long impact.

"I'm by far in the best condition of my life, bar none," Connolly said. "All the physical testing results are the highest I've had in my career. It was a long summer of rehab and training and getting ready. The goal is playing every game. Contribute at both ends of the rink and contribute on the special teams because I feel like I can make the team better in those areas."

But can you really make a team better if you can't stay on the ice? Obviously not. At this point in his career, Connolly has tired of giving constant updates on his physical condition.

"I remember when he was coming back from his concussion [in the 2006-07 season), he'd come to the rink and guys would go ask him how do you feel," said teammate Jason Pominville. "You want to know, you're hoping he'll be back quick and at the same time you don't want to ask him all the time because everybody is asking him no matter where he is in the city."

"I'm not authorized to talk about injuries," a smirking Connolly said -- only half-jokingly -- as reporters approached him one day near the end of training camp to find out about his back.

Normal media reaction to such sarcasm might be to set a figurative torch ablaze near the player's locker. Not in this case. Even the most cynical folks have to feel for the guy.

"He's a great playmaker, a really important player for us," said Jochen Hecht. "Every time we have him in the lineup, we're a little bit better. The injuries are tough. He just can't put his head down. He has to keep it up, stay positive and get through it."

It's easy to forget Connolly once played 286 consecutive games in his career -- at least 80 in each of his first four seasons. But things have never been the same since he suffered his first concussion in a preseason game and missed the entire 2003-04 season. His infamous playoff concussion in Ottawa in 2006 cost him all but two games in '06-07, and the hip and abdominal problems ruined last year.

"He was an iron man in the league at one time," Pominville said. "He's had some unfortunate things happen but he worked hard over the summer to get back."

Connolly said he rehabbed his hip for two-plus hours twice a day for three months in Baldwinsville, outside his native Syracuse. Then he moved into more strength training to get ready for the season.

Connolly is 27 and the Sabres won't be giving him another contract unless he proves he can play regularly. Coach Lindy Ruff is understandably taking much more of a wait-and-see attitude. Not knowing when or if Connolly could play -- or practice -- was a daily distraction last season and put Ruff in the position of having to constantly shuffle his lines.

"He's come back with a lot of fight," Ruff said. "You could see how discouraged he was with the fact he's been missing again [because of the back]. He's got to battle through it and be ready."

If Connolly is healthy, he gives the Sabres a legitimate No. 2 or 3 center, a key penalty-killer and a crucial member of the power play, either along the wall or at the point.

"He just means a whole lot to this team," said Derek Roy. "We need him special-teams wise. He's rock-solid out there. He's got experience."

Connolly's passing skills are among the best in the league and easily the best on the Buffalo roster.

"He's got such great vision and he really sees the ice," Roy said. "He makes plays that other players won't see."

"He's maybe our most creative player," Pominville said. "He's so talented that you never know what to expect when he has the puck. He makes things happen on his own, makes everybody around him better."

Connolly has innate vision to find the open man and great hands to get that player the puck. His teammates say it's no coincidence they constantly get open shots and huge scoring chances when Connolly is feeding them the puck.

"If they give me the puck, they're thinking 'get open,' " Connolly said. "I have that working for me. They know I'm going to be looking for them so they do an even better job of getting open for me. If you can get a step on a guy or maybe attract another guy over to you, it will leave somebody open that I can find."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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