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A home port visit Pirates, Kennedy play here tonight Curiosity about prospects with Sabres' affiliate should attract nice crowd

We'll start with the ticket question. Tim Kennedy is back in town tonight with the Portland Pirates, but the South Buffalo native said he can't fund an evening out for everyone in his old neighborhood.

"Close family and friends only and then you're on your own," Kennedy cracked after practice Monday morning in HSBC Arena. "It's always nice to come home in front of your friends and family. It should be fun."

Portland, in its first year as the Buffalo Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate, will be meeting the Albany River Rats (New Jersey) in a 7 p.m. matchup. It figures to be a neat showcase for top prospects like Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe, Mark Mancari, defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani and goaltender Jhonas Enroth.

The Sabres had sold 9,500 tickets as of Monday afternoon. Tickets are $15-$25.

"I'm expecting a lot of South Buffalo to be here," said Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn. "A lot of people see these young players as our future so there's a lot of curiosity about it. And they're just like the Sabres -- they have a lot of injuries too. They're learning how to get through that."

Gerbe ranks second among AHL rookies in scoring with 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists). Kennedy (seven goals, 28 assists) is the leader among rookies in assists and is sixth in scoring. Each, however, has been battling injuries.

Gerbe returned Saturday night after a concussion and Kennedy is still dealing with the horrifying facial injury he suffered Jan. 17 in a game against Manchester.

Trying to hit the puck out of mid-air with a two-handed baseball swing, Monarchs center Gabe Gauthier instead nailed Kennedy in the mouth with devastating results.

Kennedy had six teeth knocked out and needed 75 stitches to close wounds. Gauthier got a double minor but did not earn an AHL suspension.

"I thought my jaw was broken and I saw I was spitting my teeth in my glove," Kennedy said. "So I knew I had a serious issue."

Portland coach Kevin Dineen said Kennedy has spent about 10 hours enduring four different dental reconstruction procedures and has also had thrush and canker sores.

"He's had a tough go but he's been in the lineup and that says a lot for him," said Dineen, the longtime Hartford Whalers agitator. "He's a gamer. It's been a tough stretch. Literally and figuratively, things are starting to come together with his mouth. He's still not a very pretty smiler but he's at least able to keep food down."

Kennedy said he's a little fatigued from the team's recent series of bus rides and said his mouth isn't fully recovered yet.

"Not yet," he said. "But it's on its way."

Much like his team, Kennedy got off to a hot start but cooled off considerably in recent weeks. One issue was that he was learning the vagaries of playing center after spending much of his time at Michigan State on the wing.

After breaking from the gate 12-1-1, injuries and call-ups to Buffalo have slowed Portland down considerably. The Pirates enter tonight's game 26-20-4 and five points behind first-place Providence in the AHL's Atlantic Division. Albany (21-23-5) is sixth in the East.

Dineen knows what Kennedy will be going through tonight playing at home. Dineen has lived in Lake George for most of the last 20 years and the Pirates met Albany Friday in Glens Falls, a few miles down I-87 from the coach's hometown. Enroth made a season-high 44 saves but Portland lost in a shootout, 3-2.

"[Kennedy] has got a very strong head on his shoulders," Dineen said. "Whenever we get wins, Timmy's usually involved in the scoring and a big part of things."

Kennedy has already been home this season. He played in a preseason game and made his NHL debut with the Sabres in their Dec. 27 shootout win over the New York Islanders.

"I was all right," he said. "I was happy to be out there. I was kind of in awe so I don't really know how normal I played. I was stuck in the moment really. It was an OK game for the first game but I can't wait to get back up."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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