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Connolly is back to his old self
Penalty kill magic
punctuates his return

Tim Connolly is Tim Connolly again. What exactly does that mean? Just ask anyone who watched the last Buffalo Sabres game. They'll be able to describe it and, more importantly, pinpoint the moment he showed it.

It was late in the first period Friday night when Connolly went on a journey few hockey players can make. He was killing a penalty and took control of the puck in his own zone. He skated up ice, past a couple of New York players and into the Islanders' end. That's when the fun started.

The Isles spaced between the blue line and the faceoff circle quickly turned into pylons on a Porsche testing track. Connolly went around one, then another, spinning away from a third. Seeing little use in playing one-on-five -- despite the fact he was winning -- he twirled around. The Islanders could only watch as Connolly skated back toward the Sabres' zone, finally pushing a pass deep to a teammate.

With more than 30 seconds of penalty time killed single-handedly, Connolly went to the bench. As he sat down, the sellout crowd in HSBC Arena stood up. The standing ovation didn't last as long as Connolly's trek, but it was sufficient recognition that the sleight of hand was back for Buffalo's on-ice magician.

"As everyone always says, I think initially just to see him be himself again [off the ice] is a huge thing," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "Now to see him be himself on the ice is even bigger and better for everyone, and it's obviously helping our team a ton out there."

Connolly was a key reason the Sabres were able to unwind Saturday instead of boarding a plane for Long Island. He earned his third assist of the playoffs Friday on the opening goal, helping the Sabres eliminate the Islanders, 4-1, in their best-of-seven series. The Sabres will return to practice today to prepare for either the New York Rangers or Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"It's a lot of fun just to be back out there and playing and be right into the playoffs, which is the most exciting time of the year," Connolly said. "To move on to the next round, it's just a great feeling to be back."

Many doubted Connolly would return this season as his ailments dragged on well past the time doctors projected they'd subside. When it became clear he could rejoin his teammates, an equal number figured he would be a shell of his former self. His words and actions say his return to prominence is complete.

"I think so," Connolly said. "I feel good out there. The games don't make me quite as sore as the first couple that I played in. It's moving in the right direction."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has Connolly centering the fourth line in an effort to gradually work him into top condition. Connolly averaged 13:16 of ice time per game against the Islanders, not far off the numbers of Thomas Vanek (14:20) and Maxim Afinogenov (14:13), and more than Drew Stafford (11:42) and Ales Kotalik (11:20).

"Timmy is coming along," Ruff said. "A day's rest here and getting him in as many games as we've gotten him in can only help him right now. He's making good plays, and we just hope he keeps continuing to make them."

Connolly's three assists were tied for third-most on the Sabres. It was assumed most of his production would come as a power-play specialist, but two of the helpers came at even strength.

"I expect to try and make plays," said Connolly, who turns 26 in two weeks. "Obviously, we're the fourth line, but I think we should be able to get some goals and chip in as well. For a fourth line, we've got a lot of talent."

It's clear that it can now be described as a healthy dose of talent.

"Sometimes he does things with the puck that you just kind of shake your head," Sabres forward Dainius Zubrus said. "He's doing his thing."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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>Connolly's contribution

How Tim Connolly fared in five games against Islanders

* Three assists

* Plus 2 rating
* 13:16 of ice time per game
* 3:56 of power-play time
* 1:12 of short-handed time

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