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Connolly's debut postponed by back injury

Even though he had practiced all week, Tim Connolly's sore back is now a major issue for the Buffalo Sabres because it's more than just lingering stiffness.

Connolly was a surprising scratch from Friday's season opener and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff revealed after the game that his center has a hairline fracture in a vertebrae.

"He was trying to get through it in practice all week," Ruff said. "We felt he could get through it, the doctors felt he could get through it but he couldn't. It just got too painful."

Connolly told The News after practice last Saturday that he was "100 percent, absolutely" going to play Friday despite missing the final five exhibition games. And Connolly had practiced fully since that day, so his words seemed legitimate. But he apparently got stiff during Friday's morning skate.

"It can't get any worse," Ruff said. "It's really a short-term thing. He'll be a question mark for, I'll put a week on it. But I don't think it will be too much longer than that."

Connolly played just 48 games last season and his campaign was cut short by hip surgery. The back problem cropped up after he played his lone exhibition game against Montreal on Sept. 23 in Roberval, Quebec. He sat out practice for a couple of days but skated on his own before returning to full contact.

With Connolly out of the lineup, Adam Mair moved up a line to center the third unit with Ales Kotalik and Maxim Afinogenov. Clarke MacArthur and Andrew Peters both suited up on the fourth line; Ruff was expecting to scratch one of them.

The healthy scratches were defenseman Nathan Paetsch and newcomer Matt Ellis, who was just claimed late in training camp off waivers from Los Angeles.

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It was the first season opener for Angola native Patrick Kaleta and defenseman Andrej Sekera. While Kaleta is a fourth-liner who gets a few energy shifts, Sekera is expected to be one of the team's main puck-carrying defensemen.

Sekera played 37 games last year, collecting two goals and six assists. He said that helped him calm his nerves about his first NHL opener.

"That really helped me a lot," Sekera said. "I know what to expect now and I know my role. They want me to move the puck and shoot the puck. It's a dream come true for me. I've been working all summer to prove I belong in this league. Now I'm here on opening night and I'm quite happy about it."

Sekera said he didn't feel any undue pressure to step into Brian Campbell's role, even though he did get some time on the Buffalo power play.

"You just have to be calm with the puck and make simple plays," he said. "When you keep it simple, those are usually the best plays. You want to move the puck quick, pass it tape to tape and everything will be fine."

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The game was Buffalo's seventh home opener against Montreal and the Sabres were 4-1-1 in the previous six. The lone loss was the 3-0 defeat in 1970 in the first home game in franchise history.

Buffalo is 21-14-3 (three ties) in its 38 season openers -- 15-6-3 at home and 6-8 on the road. Friday was the first time since a 3-3 tie in 1990 the Sabres and Habs have kicked off a season against each other.

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There's a sign above Section 312 that reads "Pominville Population" and it lists the number of goals Jason Pominville has, keeping up with broadcaster Rick Jeanneret's notion that the population goes up by one every time the Sabres winger scores.

A new twist for Friday's opener had the population at "26.5 million," a reference to the value of the long-term contract extension Pominville signed just prior to training camp.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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