Ryan Miller will make his preseason debut tonight in his home state by playing the full 60 minutes in goal as the Buffalo Sabres meet the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena (7 p.m., Radio 550 AM). But while Miller will just be fine-tuning for the regular season, this is far more than a mere exhibition for center Tim Kennedy.
You know Kennedy as the pride of South Buffalo trying to make his hometown team after leading American Hockey League rookies in scoring last year for the Portland Pirates. But in Michigan, Kennedy is big time after leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship in 2007. And he played plenty of regular-season and postseason games in his career in the Joe.
Kennedy scored the tying goal in the third period of Michigan State's title game win over Boston College. And he fed Justin Abdelkader for the most famous goal in the school's long history, the game-winner with 18.9 seconds left in regulation. Abdelkader, his roommate for three years, now plays for the Red Wings and should be on the ice as well tonight.
No matter what happens in his pro career, Kennedy already has a moment for a lifetime.
"When it happens you don't realize that because you're so caught up in the moment," Kennedy said after practice Friday in HSBC Arena. "But going back is really special. The last two summers there, people still talk about that game and that goal and what it means to the state, the community. You realize how special it is."
Kennedy scored what looked like it would be a game-winning goal for the Sabres with 2:32 left in Thursday's exhibition opener against Washington. But Buffalo gave up the tying goal 23 seconds later and lost in overtime, 4-3. Nathan Gerbe, the AHL Rookie of the Year last year in Portland, made the play on Kennedy's goal with some great forechecking behind the net and Kennedy potted a backhand off a neat feed from Philip Gogulla.
The 5-foot-6 Gerbe jumped into Kennedy's arms in celebration after the goal, the kind of play that can get the Kennedy-Gerbe alliance noticed in its bid to make the Buffalo roster.
"Gerbs was in my arms before I could do anything. I was stunned almost," Kennedy said. "I was really happy but you don't want to show too much. You want to act like you've scored before and not go crazy. But it was very special to score here."
"I asked him how come he's not more excited when he scored," said a smiling Gerbe. "I would have been fist-pumping or something."
Kennedy admitted he was a little nervous prior to Thursday's game. Until the goal, it had been mostly a pedestrian effort from he and Gerbe in terms of trying to make an impression on the coaching staff. But they're going to get more chances.
"We want to see them as much as we can. They'll probably play four of the six games," said coach Lindy Ruff. ". . . I liked what they did on what should have been the game-winning goal. Made a great play. It's going to be interesting to see them in further exhibition games."
"Guys are much quicker and close the gap much quicker," Gerbe said. "You really have to think ahead."
Kennedy said his two summer development camps and now his second training camp in Buffalo have helped him make an easier transition for the NHL push.
"The stuff during the summer helps. Then you get together with guys in August," he said. "You play golf, go out to eat with them. I've been here the whole summer working out and I kind of know the system. . . . It helps."
Ruff said defenseman Steve Montador (neck stinger) will be held off the ice for a couple of days but forward Adam Mair (hip surgery) has the OK to skate on his own. Defenseman Matt Generous, ticketed for Portland, will miss a month with an ankle tendon injury.