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|3 äåêàáðÿ 2007
Afinogenov breaks through for Sabres // Buffalo News
Winger has strung seven solid games
Maxim Afinogenov’s reaction said it all. Wide smile. Pumping right fist. Leaping half-twist into the end glass. Two more fist pumps.
The fourth goal in an 8-1 victory normally doesn’t prompt so much celebration or postgame chatter. But when it’s your first tally in 13 games and you’re expected to be one of your team’s main offensive weapons, then it becomes a totally different story.
“It was definitely a relief,” Afinogenov said of Saturday’s second-period tally in the Buffalo Sabres’ destruction of the Carolina Hurricanes. “I was happy. I got some chances but all the time a guy would make the save, or I would miss the net, hit a post or whatever. Today I scored and I got my feelings turned around a little.”
It was a classic Afinogenov solo dash. He took a pass from Brian Campbell at his own blue line and burst down the left wing. His slap shot, which may have ticked defenseman Bret Hedican’s stick, rocketed off the post before nestling behind ’Canes goaltender John Grahame with 3:32 left in the second period.
It was just Afinogenov’s fourth goal of the year and first since the Nov. 1 overtime loss at Boston. MSG analyst Harry Neale summed up what everybody in HSBC Arena clearly felt as Afinogenov was congratulated by his teammates: “That’s an awful piano off his back.”
“I think it’s important because you can see the frustration,” added coach Lindy Ruff. “I thought [Saturday] was maybe his best skating night where he really seemed like he had a lot of jump.”
The streak without a goal was Afinogenov’s longest since a 17-gamer early in the 2005-06 season.
“I’ve been getting some chances but the puck finally went in today,” Afinogenov said. “Hopefully it will turn around for me. I’ve just battled through my bad times and hopefully they’re finished.
“I’m just going to keep working in practices and games and things will pay off. I’m trying to play hard and sometimes it’s not gone my way. Hopefully now things will turn around for me.”
The mere fact Afinogenov got a goal wasn’t the reason his play was being lauded around the locker room.
Afinogenov was plus-3 in the game for just the second time this season and it continued a string of improved two-way performances. He’s plus-5 over the last seven games and hasn’t been a minus player in any of them.
That’s a far cry from the previous 13 outings, when Afinogenov was minus-14 and slipped to minus-10 overall — worst among NHL forwards. The cries of trade him or at least ship him to the press box for a night were growing and growing.
But Afinogenov has been doing video work with Ruff on his defensive responsibilities and is becoming more aggressive in the offensive end as well. He single-handedly set up Jaroslav Spacek’s power-play goal Saturday by first outmuscling Niclas Wallin to the puck along the boards and then feeding Spacek in the slot.
“He was great,” said linemate Paul Gaustad. “I talked to him during the pregame skate and he said ‘I feel good, I think it will be a good night for us.’ He’s been playing really well and I think that goal was huge for him. Hopefully it just continues.”
No question Saturday’s goal has to be a mere starting point because Afinogenov’s overall stats (four goals in 24 games and a minus- 5 overall rating) are still pretty brutal. Not what you expect from your longest-tenured forward and one with your second-highest salary ($3.5 million). Especially after a 23- goal season that saw him finish at plus-19.
“I know I can score. I know I can play,” Afinogenov said. “I’ve showed that before. I just have to keep working. It’s a plus to get a goal and things will be better right now. . . . It has been tough, especially when the team is losing. Now we’ve picked it up the last few games and it’s kind of a relief for me as well.”