Connolly and linemates blanked again

Leafs players are stopped by Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto,...

Leafs players are stopped by Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Sep. 23, 2011. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:36 PM ET

TORONTO - Tim Connolly didn’t take a wrong turn into the visitors’ dressing room, go into the Sabres’ huddle when Lindy Ruff called time, or blindly follow the QEW Niagara signs on the drive home.

So the cord was officially cut in his first game against his old team. What Connolly badly wanted to do was score against the Buffalo Sabres — or have Phil Kessel convert one of the many chances Connolly set up. The Leafs video crew are still going to have to resort to B-roll of Connolly, Kessel and Joffrey Lupul fooling around in practice if they want clips of a goal.

The line was shut out again, but was much better in Friday’s 2-1 loss than their jittery debut against the Flyers.

“I’m sure it’ll be a little weird, seeing all the old faces and the old uniforms,” alternate captain Connolly said before the game. But once the anthems ended, it was back to business.

Connolly had three missed shots on goal, but was happy to be 11-of-20 on the draw, with a couple of nice deliveries to Lupul for one-timers.

“That’s one thing you don’t get to practice in summer hockey,” Wilson said of Connolly’s work in the dots.

Connolly’s career faceoff numbers aren’t great, below 47% the past three years, and he lost two key draws with James Reimer on the bench in the final 21 seconds.

But at least the change of sweaters took one of Buffalo’s most efficient Leafs burners out of circulation. Connolly’s 32 points in 39 career games against Toronto are the most he’s rung up against any opponent.

“There wasn’t a lot of talk out there between me and their team,” he said. “They came out on top this time. I’m happy to be a Leaf, there’s excitement in this city, it’s a historic franchise and it’s cool to be a part of it.”

As Connolly had not played since the 4-0 shutout loss to the Flyers, it was deemed best to use him Friday in the opener of the home-and-home series against the Sabres, rather than Saturday at the newly christened First Niagara Center. There will be plenty of time for the Syracuse native to prepare for his return as the clubs don’t meet there in the regular season until Dec. 16.

By then, his line should be quite comfortable, three former first-round draft picks of other NHL teams, looking to prove something to their previous employers.

Perhaps trying to take the spotlight off them until they get more comfortable, Wilson keeps insisting he has two No. 1 lines, pumping up another unit that features an ex-Sabre. Clarke MacArthur was scrapping last night as he, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski missed their own opportunities to tie it late in the game.

As for the other elements of the Toronto — Buffalo rivalry, goaltenders Ryan Miller and Reimer staged a nice duel through 77 totals shots, though Reimer had a couple of posts and fortunate bounces before Jason Pominville’s power-play winner with 7:33 to go.

Kessel did beat Miller earlier, but it was during a line change when he converted a play from Nazem Kadri and defenceman John-Michael Liles. Miller salvaged the win with an amazing stretch glove save on Lupul.

The size the Leafs have added on the blueline since the start of last season, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie, should be effective against many small-fry Sabres forwards in the coming six-game regular-season series, though the big duo and Dion Phaneuf spent some time in the penalty box.

A day after the Flyers’ Jody Shelley was suspended 10 games for his hit on Leaf Darryl Boyce, Phaneuf was called for the new head-shot minor on an unsuspecting Michael Ryan.

The Leafs captain was miffed in his second call deemed to be close to the noggin of an opponent, but as one of Friday night’s referees explained to him, everyone is learning on the go.

“I stood up, made the hit and made contact with his body,” Phaneuf maintained. “I’ve never been suspended for going after a guy’s head. I won’t be hesitant to make an open-ice hit. That was a good hockey hit. You have to protect yourself. You can’t be looking back. It’s been like that for years if you’re coming through the middle of the ice.

“I agree with taking head shots out, snot-sticking elbows out and not hitting guys from behind. But it’s a fast game and open-ice hits are part of that.”


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