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Connolly waits to find out his fate SABRES VS. ISLANDERS: Faceoff: 7 p.m. * Nassau Coliseum TV: MSG * Radio: 550 AM * Season series: Sabres lead, 2-1

Tim Connolly is playing against his old team tonight. Who knows? Maybe the next time he plays, the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders might both be his old teams.

The Sabres will play their final game before the trade deadline when they visit Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. General Manager Darcy Regier has made a deal at the deadline each of the past five seasons, so it's quite possible at least one person in Blue and Gold will be playing his final game for the Sabres.

Most observers are keeping their eyes on Connolly. The gifted, oft-injured playmaker will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The sides have been discussing a contract extension. If talks prove futile -- or if juicy offers come Regier's way -- the Sabres may decide to deal Connolly for assets that would help them now and next season.

After Friday's workout in the Islanders' practice facility, Connolly firmly stated what he wants.

"The No. 1 option is to stay in Buffalo," the center said. "Right now I don't think about that too much. I think about how important these games are and how important it is to win hockey games right now and make the playoffs."

The Sabres' deadline deal last year was shipping Brian Campbell to San Jose. Regier had little choice. He had seen too many pending free agents leave with no return, and he was determined to get something back with Campbell sure to bolt elsewhere.

The Connolly situation hasn't reached that status. At least not yet.

"I don't think it's as cut-and-dried as Brian's was," Regier said. "It may get there, it may not get there, but we're not there today. Our preference would still be keeping him here, certainly next year."

It was intriguing Regier focused on "next year" rather than "multiyear." It's possible the sides may try a one-year extension. That would eliminate the problem the Sabres had with this contract while allowing Connolly to show he is capable of producing for a whole season.

The problem the Sabres had with Connolly's current three-year, $8.7 million deal was obvious (and well-known). He wasn't around for most of it. Connolly has played 78 games and missed 148 since signing. That's a lot of bucks for no pucks.

The reason teams, including the Sabres, want Connolly on their roster is also obvious. When he plays, he's impressive. He has 26 points in 28 games this season, including a stretch of nine goals in nine games. Since 2005-06, Connolly has 122 points in 141 games.

"I still think there's room for improvement for our team and myself," Connolly said. "I think I can do a better job in all the little areas, both ends of the rink and special teams."

Connolly and his fellow penalty killers are coming off a clutch performance. They thwarted back-to-back opportunities by Carolina late in the third period of Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss. It was a turnaround from recent woes.

The Sabres had given up at least one power-play goal in eight straight games. They are a perfect 9-for-9 in the past two games, including a 6-for-6 showing against the Hurricanes.

"We had more attitude to it," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "When I'm talking attitude, it's shot lanes, desperation. [Against Anaheim on Tuesday] we got a little momentum, and then [Thursday] I thought we did a good job."

With only 20 games remaining and the Eastern Conference playoff race as crowded as a Times Square intersection, the penalty killers will need to continue the good job. Connolly hopes to be around for that. Either way, he has only one more game to listen to questions about his immediate future.

"It's a new situation for me," he said, "but if I spend most of my time thinking about the games and what I've got to do to help this team, all the other stuff will take care of itself."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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