(WECK 1230) — He’s still here, you know? The No. 5 pick in the 1999 draft. The penalty-killer, power-play-passer and sleight-of-hand stick handler. The $4.5 million price tag. The “trade him before it’s too late” center. All-in-one blue-and-gold uniform labeled Connolly.
He’s handled himself with class this year, a season marked by folks like me who couldn’t wait to see him wearing any other sweater than the one that represents the NHL team in my town. He hasn’t performed like one of the Top 20 centers in the game — he ranks No. 42 of those NHL.com deems centers– but Connolly has been okay.
“Okay” isn’t likely going to make Connolly’s critics apologize for every frail, overpaid and/or useless comment, but clutch will go much further for the embattled centerman. Going up against a middling Flyers penalty kill unit, non-descript goaltending and slightly-above average defense, Connolly can transform himself.
If Connolly can play like a No. 2 center — let alone a No. 1 — the Sabres will win the series against Philadelphia. It really feels that simple. The Flyers’ 2010 run to the Cup Finals occurred against poor offensive teams and the Blackhawks were far too much for Philly’s beleaguered backstops to handle.
It wouldn’t be a massive stretch for Connolly to play that well, in fact he’s been much better overall in recent months. Consider:
— In his last 24 games, he’s been a minus player just four times.
— Connolly has 14 points in his last 16 games, much closer to his former point-per-game status.
— Connolly had seven points (3G, 4A) in four games vs. Philly this season.
— In the ’05-’06 playoff series against Philly, he collected three goals and five assists in six games.
Obviously that was a much different Flyers team, but it changes very little about the dynamic force a top center brings to the ice. Every team in the NHL — including the Sabres — has several very good, if not great, wingers. Right now, Connolly represents the team’s only potentially game-changing threat in the middle.
A good performance wouldn’t be just game-changing, but reputation-changing. If not here in Buffalo, almost certainly in the free agent market.