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Beauty of Connolly's goal in eyes of beholder

WASHINGTON -- The goal wasn't a vintage Tim Connolly dipsy-doodle. The Buffalo Sabres center rattled a pass off a defender's stick, and the puck inadvertently went in.

To his fans and teammates, it was a thing of beauty.

Connolly, playing for the first time in 11 months, scored on his fourth shift of Saturday afternoon's 2-0, Presidents' Trophy-clinching victory over the Washington Capitals in the Verizon Center.

"The first goal's always the hardest one to get. It's a big relief," Connolly said while riding a stationary bike. "I was just going out with the mentality of keeping it simple out there, not trying to do too much."

Not to shortchange the clever playmaker, his pass from the top of the right circle would have turned into a goal anyway because Daniel Paille was stationed at the left post with an open net before him.

"It was a heck of a look," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's got that type of vision."

Connolly said he quickly felt at home in his satisfying return. He hadn't played since suffering a concussion in the second round of the playoffs last May and a stress fracture below his right knee in February.

"After the first few shifts, mentally it just felt like a normal game again," Connolly said. "You're right back in the swing of things, talking to guys on the bench, seeing what you can do differently, calling for guys, reminding guys there's a minute left in the period.

"It just felt like a normal game."

Connolly had 13:06 of ice time, skating 16 shifts. He centered the fourth line between Paille and Adam Mair, and was used on the power play and penalty kill. Connolly took two shots, blocked one and won half of his six faceoffs.

His mere presence, let alone that fortuitous goal, lifted his teammates.

"Just watching him skate up the ice with the puck was amazing," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "He just creates so much room for himself. Coming up the ice seemed easy for him. He's throwing little head fakes, giving himself another 3 feet of room. All of a sudden we have the zone and he's making passes."

***

As long as Connolly was on long-term injured reserve, the Sabres were allowed to use his salary cap space on other players. When they activated him Saturday morning, they had to clear money and were forced to send first-year winger Drew Stafford back to the Rochester Americans.

"Drew has been assigned to Rochester," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said, "and he'll remain there until the end of the season."

That sounds like such a long time.

"It does sound long, doesn't it?" Regier said with a laugh. "It's like New Year's Eve: 'We'll see you next year.' "

The Sabres can recall Stafford on Monday because there is no salary cap in the postseason. But the team has only two of its four allotted non-emergency recalls remaining as long as the Amerks are alive in the AHL playoffs. The rule is there to protect the AHL teams from having their rosters depleted. The AHL regular season doesn't end until next Sunday.

"We're going to leave it open for now," Regier said of whether the Sabres will bring Stafford right back. "We'll look at it [tonight] after the game.

"It'll come down to a number of things. Where we are player-wise and whether we want him to play down there and risk injury."

***

Today's game against the Philadelphia Flyers is meaningless from a league standpoint. The Sabres confirmed their postseason berth long ago and earned the Presidents' Trophy on Saturday. The Flyers are the NHL's worst team.

But there is one thing to play for today: the Biron Cup.

The Sabres will face old friend Martin Biron for the first time since the veteran goalie was dealt at the trade deadline. In addition, the game will be televised on NBC.

"It's going to be interesting," Biron said. "No. 1, it's going to be a big challenge. The way that team has geared to get to the playoffs, it doesn't seem like they have held anything back. It seemed like every year we were there, Lindy Ruff didn't want to hold guys back. He wanted to let them play right into the playoffs. I expect them to come really hard [at us].

"After that, it's a national [TV] game, and I have a lot of friends who supported me for so many years watching that on TV. It will be something special."

With Ruff suggesting a shutout would be a great way for Miller to end his regular season, it appears Biron will face his replacement as backup, Ty Conklin. If Miller sits out, he will finish the regular season with a shutout two years in a row.

***

There has been speculation that Biron and Don Luce, the Flyers' director of player development, would try to woo Sabres centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in the offseason. Buffalo's co-captains will be unrestricted free agents.

"This organization will go the right direction," Biron said of the Flyers. "I am sure they will be shopping for some very good players, and you mentioned two I know very well and have played with, but . . . I will not talk any business until [the Sabres] achieve their goal.

"I have a lot of friends over there. They are on a mission, and I won't get in the way of that. When it's done and it's the middle of June or whatever, I will put on the gray suit and get the sales pitch out there. Until then, I will let it go."

***

Briere, much to the delight of Capitals fans who remembered his run-ins with beloved star Alex Ovechkin, was thrown out of Saturday's game with 14:12 to play. He was tossed for spearing defenseman Milan Jurcina during a scrum that began when Capitals captain Chris Clark dragged around Sabres winger Jason Pominville by the chinstrap.

Briere had speared Ovechkin in the nether region one game after Ovechkin hit Briere from behind. They patched up their differences when they started the All-Star Game on the same line.

Briere's ejection put his bid for a 100-point season in serious doubt. Briere went into the game with 95 points.

***

Derek Roy scored in the first period to give the Sabres seven 20-goal producers, which the team hadn't done since 1983-84. Jochen Hecht, stuck on 19 for five games, missed an empty net in the final minute.

If Hecht pops for a goal this afternoon, the Sabres would have eight 20-goal scorers for the first time since they had nine in 1974-75.

***

Paul Gaustad can wear two shoes again. The big forward was allowed to ditch his protective boot Friday but said he's not sure when he'll be cleared to skate again. He likely is out for the postseason after having a severed ankle tendon repaired in February.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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