Tim Connolly's departure has gotten me thinking about his tenure in Buffalo. A lot of people look back at the 05-06 playoffs and bemoan all the defensive injuries, but I started wondering in another direction. Peter Schaefer knocked Connolly out for a year and change in game two of the Ottawa series. Up to that point Connolly had 5 goals and 6 assists in seven games.
It looked like Connolly had finally started to show that big time potential that everyone always said he possessed. And then Schaefer brained him and he never really looked the same (and never scored another playoff goal). Like I said, the injuries to the defense were a big part of the Sabres failures that postseason and the Sabres steady decline in penalty killing can mostly be blamed on that phenomenon...but some of it can be blamed on the disappearance of Connolly's 2:40 of shorthanded time on ice per game. And even more telling is that the Sabres went from scoring 4.5 goals per game with Connolly to 2.4 goals per game without Connolly. (Some of which can also be blamed on the unhealthy defense as well as stiffer competition in the later rounds.)
I think that with Connolly healthy, Ruff is able to use Hecht and/or Pominville to bolster the defense keeping one of Fitzpatrick/Janik/Jillson/Paetsch off the ice. I think he also contributes enough offensively and as a defensive center to make up for the lack of healthy defensemen, and neither Carolina nor Edmonton stands a chance.
Continuing on into the next season, with a healthy Connolly the Sabres are able to ice something relatively close (cap space aside) to the following:
Pominville - Briere - Hecht
Drury - Connolly - Kotalik
Vanek - Roy - Afinogenov
Stafford - Zubrus - Paille/Gaustad
Good fucking lord. That's three and a half top six centers out there on the ice and zero fourth line players with no hockey talent. And remember, that's awesome next-step Tim Connolly that's playing center on the second line, not the brain-addled Connolly we all know and grew to hate. It's not a stretch to think that Connolly carries his superb 05-06 postseason play into the 06-07 season, especially with the talent around him. It's not all that hard to envision Connolly hitting 20+ goals and 50+ assists for the first time in his career without the concussion's interruption and what is almost an All-Star supporting cast.
With that I think a good (not fuzzy/rusty) Tim Connolly helps the Sabres beat the Senators in a series that was closer than its five games indicated. And from there it would have been the Sabres' scoring and offensive talent versus Anaheim's monster defensemen and toughness.
If Peter Schaefer never altered Tim Connolly's career with a shot to the head (that was not at all a blindside), it's not inconceivable the the Buffalo Sabres would have appeared in and won back to back Stanley Cups from 2005 to 2007.