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Connolly's woes may be neck pain

Nobody knows for sure because expert opinions vary, but it's possible Buffalo Sabres center Tim Connolly for months has been suffering from lingering neck problems and not necessarily post-concussion syndrome.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Saturday that doctors diagnosed Connolly with having a disc that was aggravating a nerve in his neck, which could be the source of persistent headaches that have sidelined the center all season. Connolly recently received an injection in hopes of relieving the neck problem and the headaches.

The Sabres recently held a conference call regarding Connolly with specialists in Pittsburgh. They came away from that discussion believing it was time for an aggressive approach to his treatment. Connolly has worked out on a stationary bicycle and undergone treatment at the University at Buffalo. He since has felt much better.

"We suggested to try anything," Ruff said. "Let's not go with the norm. The concussion area really is a gray area. It's treated differently from sport to sport and player to player. We felt we should reach out and go in any direction we can, that maybe we can find something."

Buffalo hasn't disputed whether Connolly initially suffered a concussion last May, but there are questions about his recovery. Traditionally, doctors discouraged players coming back from concussions from exercising while experiencing headaches. Others disagreed. None has found the exact answer.

Ruff's neighbor initially introduced the UB program after showing the coach an article outlining treatment for people experiencing similar problems. There was still no timetable for Connolly's return. The Sabres were waiting to see how he responded to the latest experiment and hoped to have a better understanding in a few weeks.

Ottawa Senators center Antoine Vermette five years ago suffered what doctors thought was a career-threatening concussion. At the time, doctors suggested he might never work, let alone play. He visited a specialist, had his neck realigned and felt instant relief. He was back on the ice within a week.

"For seven months, I woke up with a headache and went to sleep hoping the next day would be a good day," Vermette said Saturday. "That day, I remember going to bed, I cracked my neck. The next day I woke up headache-free. That was it."

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If you're among the legion of Sabres fans who have been getting increasingly frustrated with Ales Kotalik's lack of production this season, join the club. Nobody has been more annoyed with the winger's play than Kotalik himself. He took a 12-game goal-scoring slump into Saturday night's game against the Senators.

"You bet I'm getting frustrated," Kotalik said. "It's tough watching all the guys scoring, and I can't find the net. We're not creating too many scoring chances as a line. It's definitely frustrating. Not a game goes by when I don't think before the game that this is going to be the one that's going to change things around."

It was enough for Ruff to change things around. He moved Kotalik to the right side on Chris Drury's line and placed Paul Gaustad on the left side. Jiri Novotny was moved from Drury's line to right wing on the fourth line with Adam Mair in the middle.

Kotalik with Drury and Novotny had been the weakest of the top three lines. Ruff wasn't pleased with their chemistry and was searching for ways to create more production without changing too much. Kotalik had six goals and 16 points in his first 31 games, putting him on pace for 15 goals and 42 points.

Last season, when he played mostly with Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov, he had a career-high 25 goals and 62 points. Connolly hasn't played, and Afinogenov has skated with winger Thomas Vanek and center Derek Roy.

"We would like more," Ruff said of Kotalik. "He's frustrated. You go through periods where players aren't producing. He's in one of those periods where we need him to break out. It starts with all the little things in the game. It might be getting one or two opportunities and getting the puck to the net.

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Atlanta Thrashers winger Marian Hossa and New York Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan led the league with 22 goals going into Saturday night's games, but who has been scoring the biggest goals?

According to The Hockey News, it's Daniel Briere.

Senior writer Ken Campbell came up with a system that rewards players for scoring first, giving their team the lead, forging a tie, winners and shootouts. Briere earned a total score of 32 in the first 31 games this season. Anaheim's Teemu Selanne and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier were tied for second at 27.5.

Jason Pominville was the next-high Sabre at 14.5. Shanahan was 13th among lead leaders at 24 while Hossa was 14th at 23.5.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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