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Sabres' Connolly skating again; return uncertain

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Tim Connolly is free of his headaches, but not of some questions.

The Buffalo Sabres center still couldn't say Friday when he would be ready to return after sustaining the second serious concussion of his career 10 months ago.

"There's no set date. There's no timeline," Connolly said after taking part in his fourth practice this week since being cleared to skate with his teammates. "I'm not going to speculate about that right now. I just come in each day knowing what I have to do and work as hard as I can to get through."

What mattered most to Connolly is that he made it through another session free of the debilitating headaches that have sidelined him since he was hurt in Game 2 of Buffalo's second-round playoff series against Ottawa last May.

"I feel pretty good," Connolly said smiling through a sheen of sweat that covered his face after the 90-minute session in which he was the second-to-last player off the ice.

Still not allowed to take part in contact drills, Connolly showed he had not lost some of his shooting touch, twice banging slap shots off the post.

With his head clear, a neck and jaw problem also corrected and his rusty skills beginning to re-emerge, Connolly's final test is getting his body in shape after being stagnant - he didn't start working out until about six weeks ago - for an extended period.

"It was up there but it's coming off quickly," Connolly said, referring to his body weight. "It's going to be a long process and a lot of hard work, but I'm definitely looking forward to the challenge."

Coach Lindy Ruff said it's possible Connolly could be back within two months, just in time for the playoffs. But Ruff cautioned that he's not going to rush him back.

The Sabres are taking a cautious approach in part because the six-year NHL veteran missed the entire 2003-04 season after sustaining a concussion during a preseason game.

Connolly's potential return, however, would provide the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres a big boost.

He's a play-making center, who was enjoying a breakout year last season, his fourth in Buffalo after the team acquired him in a deal that sent former captain Michael Peca to the New York Islanders.

Despite missing 19 games with a knee injury, Connolly finished fifth on the Sabres with 16 goals and 39 assists in 63 regular-season games. He had five goals and six assists in eight playoff games before he was hurt, caught skating through the middle with his head down when he failed to avoid a clean check by Ottawa's Peter Schaefer.

Although the injury was severe, it didn't stop the Sabres from re-signing Connolly to a three-year $8.7 million contract in July. The prognosis at the time was Connolly would potentially miss the start of training camp.

Connolly, however, was still experiencing headaches in December, which raised fears that he would miss the entire season.

The initial breakthrough came when doctors discovered Connolly had a degenerative protruding disk in his upper back that was affecting his neck and potentially contributing to his headaches. Doctors also corrected a jaw joint that prevented him from closing his mouth.

Connolly then began a series of light workouts at the University at Buffalo as part of the school's newly introduced post-concussion rehab program.

The combination of treatments led to Connolly receiving clearance to skate on his own earlier this month.

"I knew I'd eventually be here. But I didn't know it would take this long," Connolly said. "It's kind of been frustrating not to be out there."

His teammates were happy to see him back practicing.

"It's very encouraging," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "The first thing we want for Tim is to get back to living a normal life. After that, if he can come back and play, it's a big plus."

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