Tim Connolly's long comeback trail may have reached its terminus.
The magical puckhandler has waited 11 long months to play in a game, and it might finally happen this afternoon. Connolly and Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff each used the adjective "optimistic" in describing the potential for a return against the Washington Capitals in the Verizon Center.
Connolly made it through Friday's practice, which was heavily geared toward testing his physical wherewithal. He quarterbacked the power play for much of the practice and underwent spirited one-on-one drills, demonstrating his marvelously dexterous hands hadn't left him.
"His conditioning isn't there, and I know that bothers him a little bit," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. "But skill doesn't go away. It comes back pretty quick. What he does is pretty special. It's nice to see him back."
Ruff liked what he saw but said he would wait to decide on whether to insert Connolly into the lineup until consulting with the medical staff and the eager center.
"It was good to see him in those situations," Ruff said. "You can see the hands are still working great. It was more to see what the legs were going to do, to get him in some battles and get some fatigue.
"We'll let him recover and see how he feels. By 7 or 8 o'clock [Friday night] he's probably going to feel one way or the other. He'll feel real good or fatigue might be a factor."
If they decide to dress Connolly either this afternoon or Easter Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres will exceed the salary cap and be forced to send rookie winger Drew Stafford back to the Rochester Americans to be in financial compliance. But there is no salary cap in the postseason, and the Sabres could recall him Monday.
Stafford practiced Friday and flew with the team to Washington in the afternoon. Rookie winger Clarke MacArthur was assigned to the Amerks in the morning.
"The situation would be that if [Connolly] does play we would have to send Stafford down," Ruff said. "We have to guard against maybe [Connolly] isn't feeling that well or maybe his groins get real tight. Stafford will come with us. But if we do send him down, he'll leave [Washington] and go to Rochester."
Connolly looked spent after practice but smiled at the prospect of playing for the first time since Ottawa Senators forward Peter Schaefer knocked him out with an open-ice check in the second round of the playoffs last spring.
"I'm optimistic," Connolly said. "Each day I feel a little bit better and better. I'm getting excited with each day. We'll see what happens in the next few days. I felt pretty good."
"I definitely think it was a step in the right direction."
Post-concussion symptoms didn't let Connolly skate until late January, needing supplemental treatment for neck and jaw injuries and an unorthodox University at Buffalo rehab program to step foot on the ice again.
Perhaps he worked out too vigorously or maybe it simply was the extra weight he had gained while inactive for so long, but shortly after being cleared to skate he was diagnosed with a stress fracture below his right knee and was back off the ice until a few weeks ago.
Connolly's stamina remains an issue for Ruff, especially when Stafford is playing well.
"I think that he's in a situation now where conditioning-wise it's still a question mark," Ruff said. "That's why we'll have to wait. We're not going to take out somebody that's going to help the team for and risk Tim in an injury situation. I don't want Tim hurt. I want him to play."
Connolly, who signed a three-year, $8.7 million contract last summer, was one of Buffalo's best players last season, a stalwart on the power-play and penalty-kill units.
He established career-highs with 16 goals, seven power-play goals and 39 assists in only 63 games. He added five goals and six assists in eight playoff games before his concussion.
The bulk of Connolly's significant ice time likely will come on special teams. Ruff didn't reveal who Connolly's linemates would be or if he would play center or the wing.
"I'm going to have to start out with a bit of a smaller role and kind of work my way up," Connolly said. "If I'm able to play well and help the team, then I'll be able to get a few more minutes.
"Keep it short, and keep it simple. To start, I might have to keep it really simple. I might even dump the puck once or twice, which I don't like to do too much. But we'll see when I get out there."