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Kennedy comes into his own

Gone now is the torture and self-loathing and uncertainty and frustration and the other fixings of a typical rookie season. Tim Kennedy has climbed over the hump having conquered the mind games, lapses in confidence, bouncing between lines, healthy scratches and plain old bad luck.

What you're seeing now are results from a player who crashed through the proverbial rookie wall and thanked the bricks for the experience. His head is clear again after he endured inevitable growing pains that come with the first season in the NHL, and he has become an impact player for his hometown team.

In the process -- yes, there is a process -- the South Buffalo native has given the Sabres yet another weapon as they draw closer to clinching the Northeast Division. He has become the two-way player Lindy Ruff needed while providing offensive flair that existed but remained dormant for much of the season.

Did you see his latest goal?

Kennedy was skating toward the Florida Panthers' zone when he identified two things that would lead to his goal: the puck on Derek Roy's stick and a gap between two defensemen. Roy feathered a nice pass, Kennedy faked Tomas Vokoun and fired a wrist shot into the top corner in a 6-2 victory Wednesday night.

See, his ability was never really in question. Anybody who kept close watch on him over the years knew he possessed NHL goods. The great unknown, which is always the case, was whether his talent and temperament would stand up to an 82-game grind against the best players in the world.

And now we know.

"It's great being from your hometown, but it's hard being from your hometown," Kennedy said after the game. "You have your friends and family asking, 'What are you doing?' It's not as easy as it looks. It's really hard. You just have to keep working. Hopefully you work through it and come out on top and turn the corner."

The learning curve can be long and unforgiving for young players. It's especially true playing for Ruff, whose history would reveal he has little tolerance for players who fail to buy into his demands of playing both ends of the rink.

Heck, Kennedy had times where he could barely go out in public without getting hassled as he fought through a brutal stretch at center. He had no points and was minus-9 over 12 games and had his own friends and neighbors suggesting he was hurting the Sabres and should be playing in Portland.

Ruff said the option was never discussed, but Kennedy couldn't keep doubts from creeping into his head. He was fighting the internal battle and putting too much pressure on himself. He was thinking too much and not reacting enough. He told himself to stop thinking so much, but it merely made things worse. He was a mess.

Finally, he did what came naturally. He started trusting his ability, regained his confidence and simply played the game. In no time, the toughest stretch of his career was all but complete, the 12-game drought a distant memory.

"It's good for you," Kennedy said. "If you come into the league and have success right away, you don't understand how hard it is. It was a good learning process. Hopefully, I'm better because of that process."

Kennedy began taking off after returning to familiar ice along the left wing. He has four goals and seven points and is plus-8 over the past nine contests, including a four-game point streak. He's tied for 10th among rookie scoring leaders with 10 goals and 25 points.

You wonder if Ruff should have had the kid on the left side all season to maximize his talent and make for an easier adjustment. The genius was actually making the kid suffer and developing a dependable two-way player.

That's what you see in Kennedy today. It was worth the wait.

"My main goal was just to make the Sabres," he said. "Then my goal was to stay here. Then my goal was the playoffs and now my goal is to help my team win the playoffs. Hopefully, we can achieve that goal."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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