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Connolly plays like award winner

Earlier in his career, when he was held up as the poster boy for all that ailed the Buffalo Sabres, the thought of Tim Connolly someday contending for the Masterton Trophy was the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

We're talking about dedication? We're talking about perseverance? Connolly represented none of those while wallowing in underachievement before and after arriving here via the Michael Peca trade.

But the seasons keep marching on, and players evolve, and what seemed ludicrous three years ago makes perfect sense today. Connolly's all grown up at 24, playing the best hockey of his pro career and realizing the levels of production anticipated when the New York Islanders selected him fifth overall in 1999. He's arrived as a full-fledged candidate for the Masterton, having displayed all the attributes the award demands while enduring some of the toughest of times.

It's probably no coincidence the Sabres broke their six-game winless streak Wednesday night, beating the Boston Bruins, 4-3, at HSBC Arena. Connolly was back in the lineup after missing seven games with a knee injury that earlier sidelined him for 12. There's no doubt about it. Buffalo's a different team when he's playing. The Sabres feed off his creativity, his vision, his anticipation. When the puck's on his stick anything seems possible.

Connolly returned showing no ill effects of having missed 19 of the last 23 games because of a left knee injury. He finished a dash down the sideboards by threading a picture-perfect goalmouth pass to J.P. Dumont for the goal that erased a 1-0 deficit. Early in the third period, he moved in off the point on the power play, lost Wayne Primeau with a swift deke in the slot and fed Chris Drury off the far post for a 3-2 lead. Just a beautiful play.

You can't help but wonder the last time Connolly had this much fun playing the game. It certainly wasn't last year, he pointed out, the season having been lost to the lockout. And it certainly wasn't the year before, he concurred, that season waylaid by a severe concussion that looked like it might jeopardize his career.

"It's been awhile," he concluded. "But really, the game's always fun. It can be frustrating at times, but everybody enjoys playing the game."

There's more to it than that. It was a recommitted Connolly who showed up to training camp in the fall more determined than ever to maximize his ability. He's more muscular now than he was before. He's noticeably more at ease, more confident, so much so that when the NHL reconvened he arrived with a shaved head that gives him the appearance of a Buddhist monk. It's a fitting makeover because you'd hardly know he's the same player.

"The new rules have been good for Timmy," Dumont said. "He can turn a game around with one move, one deke. I've been around Timmy. I knew with his skills the new rules were going to be good for him and good for us."

Doubtless Connolly has benefited from the NHL's liberation of the skilled player. His two assists against the Bruins upped his season point total to 46, a career-high achieved over a scant 53 games. He's three goals shy of his personal best of 14 set over 81 games during his rookie year with the Islanders. He's one of only five Buffalo forwards with a plus rating, which dismisses the notion his game's all about the power play. That was Connolly who retreated in a flash to erase a two-on-one break after an intercepted Brian Campbell pass gave the Bruins a prime short-handed opportunity.

Dedication? Perseverance? The words fit Connolly as they never have before. He's re-emerged from the darkness of his concussion. He returned to seize a roster spot this fall when one no longer seemed guaranteed. His game has become complete.

Connolly for the Masterton? It's no longer a reach in the least.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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