If Tim Connolly has any apprehension about his first game in Buffalo after he fled the Sabres for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season, he is keeping it to himself.
The veteran centre offered up only clichés and platitudes Wednesday, when he was asked about Friday’s matchup.
“It’s a big rivalry game, so there’ll be a great atmosphere,” was one Connolly offering. Followed by: “I’m just going to go out and try to win.”
When he was pressed, because every reporter in the Leafs dressing room after their practice knew of Connolly’s difficult relationship with the Buffalo fans and media, he relented. But just a little.
“It should be pretty interesting,” Connolly said of the First Niagara Center crowd. “They tend to boo their players when they come back.”
If Sabres fans tend to boo the team’s prodigal sons, then NHL players tend to get concussions.
There is a long enemies list. Before Terry Pegula bought the Sabres last spring, the team lost at least one good player to free agency each year because the former owners’ budget. After leaving for greener pastures, Miro Satan, Chris Drury, Daniel Brière and a bunch of others got or get the business every time they set foot in Buffalo.
The feelings might be harder in Connolly’s case, as he was cursed with a series of wonky injuries over his 10 years with the team that drove the Sabres fans wild. After recovering from a concussion he sustained during the 2006 playoffs that kept him out until the final two games of 2006-07, Connolly was never able to play a full season in his last four in Buffalo.
He never had another concussion but he suffered a string of odd injuries, often as the result of bad luck. By the end, when he produced just 42 points in 68 games in 2010-11, the fans and media were all over him.
Clarke MacArthur, who was Connolly’s teammate in Buffalo and now plays on his line with the Maple Leafs, knows all about it. But, he added with a smile, as a player who never scored more than 17 goals in his four seasons with the Sabres, MacArthur says he escaped the catcalls.
“They have a lot of pride there, they want to see their team win,” he said. “It’s a great place when you’re winning and a tough place to play when you’re losing, much like a lot of other places.
“I always say, ‘If they miss you, they boo you.’ Chris Drury left and he got the boo birds every time. I even had some people cheering for me, they were so happy I was out of there. We might get the boo birds on Friday [for Connolly,]so that will be great.”
After signing as a free agent with the Leafs last summer, Connolly’s luck stayed the same. A couple of shoulder injuries limited him to 18 games this season. He also dodged a couple of injury bullets in the last week, when Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin accidentally kicked him in the back and when a puck hit him in the groin during last Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Who gets kicked in the back?” MacArthur said, marvelling at Connolly’s misfortunes.
However, whenever he is in the Leafs lineup, Connolly, 30, is a major contributor – as his 15 points in 18 games show.
Perhaps his luck is about to turn. Connolly gets to head down the Queen Elizabeth Way after his best game in a Maple Leafs jersey, scoring both goals in the win over Carolina.
The Sabres will play the Leafs without winger Ville Leino.
Just when he finally started producing (five points in his last seven games) after coming to Buffalo as a high-priced free agent, Leino is out of the lineup for “weeks” with an undisclosed injury to his lower body.