When six of his teammates scored against the New York Rangers Tuesday night, Maxim Afinogenov had to be feeling a little lonely.
Wednesday night, Afinogenov threw his whole body into a punch-in shot from just outside the crease, an expression of sheer desire born of a mix of talent and frustration. Moments later, lonely no more, Afinogenov disappeared inside a throng of ecstatic teammates. His first goal since Jan. 12 had just powered past Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, giving the Sabres a 2-1 overtime victory.
"I was really happy we won the game; it was an important game for us," Afinogenov said. "For sure, it's a very important goal for me, too."
The tally that ended Afinogenov's nine-game goal-less streak came just 42 seconds into overtime, when the Sabres got a three-on-one break heading into the Islanders' zone. With Miroslav Satan and Afinogenov on his wings, Erik Rasmussen got the puck and knocked it through the slot past New York defenseman Kenny Jonsson. Afinogenov picked up the razor-sharp pass right in front of the net, and wasted no time in launching the puck under DiPietro's blocker.
"Max, he had almost no room to shoot, but somehow he found the hole," Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said. "From where I was I couldn't see the puck, but I saw the red light."
Hasek played a near-perfect game, marred only by a power-play goal in the third period off the stick of Islanders winger Mariusz Czerkawski. Hasek stopped the initial slapshot from Dave Scatchard and, thinking the puck was underneath him, lay flat on the ice with his arms and legs clamped shut. The puck, though, had trickled out from under Hasek, and was already moving toward the goal line when Czerkawski tapped it in to tie the score at 1-1.
The Islanders had the man advantage after a roughing call against Doug Gilmour, a penalty that Sabres coach Lindy Ruff described as "undisciplined."
The scoring began 1:07 into the second period, when Stu Barnes deked DiPietro and scored his second goal in two games.
That goal was only the beginning of the second-period fireworks. The teams engaged in two separate brawls in the period, resulting in 80 minutes worth of penalty minutes to 13 players. The first fight began when Sabres rookie Eric Boulton tripped New York's Taylor Pyatt at the Sabres' blue line. The ensuing six-player slugfest included both goalies.
Two minutes later, Islanders forward Craig Berube simultaneously cross-checked Hasek and Jay McKee with a stick to the necks. Berube followed through by punching Hasek, and McKee, Rhett Warrener and Vaclav Varada jumped in to defend their goalie. Varada and the Islanders' Garry Galley and Claude Lapointe each received game misconducts.
"It's a good feeling to see your teammates stick up for you," Hasek said. With a grin, he added: "I think especially Varada did a great job in this fight."
Even taking into consideration Varada's uncharacteristic foray into pugilism, Afinogenov was the star of the night. After weeks of bad bounces and point-blank shots that always seemed to find their way into the goalie's glove, Afinogenov finally had one to go his way.
Rookie standout DiPietro had made one such glove-save on Afinogenov with 3:38 left in the third, and the Sabres had shot the puck wide on a chance with 9.6 seconds to go in regulation. But those missed opportunities only seemed to make Afinogenov's game-winner that much sweeter.
"I thought Max had a heck of an opportunity to win it for us in late in the third, and I thought, it's going to be hard to get another one," Ruff said. "To put back-to-back wins together after losing back-to-back (before the break), it's a step in the right direction."