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C Connolly, C Hecht back on the ice as Sabres getting healthy just in time

Centre Tim Connolly feels ready to play, and he's not the only injured Buffalo Sabres top-line forward getting healthy for the start of the playoffs.

Barring any setback, there's a chance the Sabres will have forward Jochen Hecht in the lineup on Thursday, when they open their first-round series hosting the Boston Bruins. And right-wing Drew Stafford might not be far behind.

Connolly's return is the most anticipated after he missed the final nine games of the regular season with a foot injury. After spending the past weekend skating on his own, Connolly took part in his full team practice on Tuesday.

"It's been full speed for a few days now," said Connolly, who took part in several physical drills. "It feels ready to go."

The Sabres top-line centre plays both power-play and penalty-killing roles, and finished second on the team with 65 points (17 goals, 48 assists) in 73 games.

Hecht also practised for the first time after missing the final three games with what the team is calling an upper body injury. The Buffalo News reported on Tuesday that Hecht had minor surgery on his finger.

As for Stafford, he skated on his own after practice, which marked the first time he's been on the ice since sustaining a concussion in a 5-2 win at Ottawa on Saturday. Stafford was cautious about when he could return to play, saying he's not yet 100 per cent.

Though Stafford remains a question mark, coach Lindy Ruff said it's possible all three could be ready to play Thursday. He particularly sounded hopeful about Connolly's return, after noting how well the player skated on Tuesday.

"We hope he can just carry on, elevate it," Ruff said. "He's got to have a good practice tomorrow."

Together, the three injured forwards accounted for 52 of the 231 goals the Sabres scored this season. They're part of an offence that relied on a balanced attack in helping Buffalo win the Northeast Division title and return to the playoffs following a two-year drought.

Led by Thomas Vanek's 28 goals, the Sabres finished the year as one of only three NHL teams to have 12 players register 10 or more goals.

The Sabres are on the verge of being the healthiest they've been over the past month.

Vanek scored five goals in two games last weekend after missing six games with a groin injury. Gritty third-line forward Patrick Kaleta returned for Buffalo's season finale after missing eight games following surgery to repair a ligament in his thumb.

"The encouraging part was winning some key games without Vanek, without Connolly," Ruff said. "Our two top producers were out, and we had some younger players come in and do a good job for us."

Connolly skated on a line alongside Jason Pominville and rookie winger Tyler Ennis, who had two goals and eight points in Buffalo's final nine games after being recalled from the minors.

Derek Roy centred Vanek and rookie Tim Kennedy.


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