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Max finally breaks out with results

Lindy Ruff said it himself in the hours leading into Friday night's game against the Montreal Canadiens. He's a pretty tolerant guy by nature. It takes a while before he loses his patience and makes a bold move, the kind that shakes up his dressing room and rattles the Sabres' foundation.

Ruff had built up his patience early in his career while coaching the likes of Chris Gratton, so he wasn't quite prepared to buckle and ship Maxim Afinogenov into the press box 20 games into the season. Still, you couldn't help but wonder how much more Ruff could withstand before reaching the end of his wick.

To review, Afinogenov had one assist to show for his previous eight games, which were accompanied by a minus-6 rating. Over his previous 15 games, he was a gruesome minus-11. Basically, he had become just another player in the lineup, painfully average if not inexcusably poor when his team needed him most.

Friday's 4-2 victory over the Canadiens was his best game in a month. He set up the Sabres' first goal when he one-timed a perfect pass to Derek Roy in the high slot that the center redirected past Carey Price on the power play. He was on the ice with the game on the line in the final minute, chasing down a loose puck and setting up Daniel Paille for an empty-netter.

Max wasn't flawless, of course. He coughed up the puck a couple times and took a senseless hooking penalty 10 seconds after Montreal tied the game in the third period. He darn near screwed himself into the ground while attempting a spin-o-rama later. But, ultimately, he made a difference in the Sabres' third straight victory.

Frankly, it was about time.

"I'm not a robot. I have my bad days, but I feel myself getting better," he said. "I have more confidence. I'm trying my best. Hopefully, my slump has passed, but it's just one game."

If you're a Sabres fan, you can only hope Friday night's game was the first of many in which Afinogenov starts earning his $3.5 million salary. With him, you never know for sure. It could have been another flash of brilliance.

Afinogenov has been here for eight seasons, longer than anyone else on the roster. Funny, but there's never been a sense the Sabres were his team. At least he admitted he needed to play better. In previous years, his house would burn to the ground before he acknowledged he needed a glass of water.

The Sabres have had numerous problems this season, so by no means does their slow start fall solely atop his shoulders. But there's also no denying that their decline since last season ran parallel with Afinogenov's ineffectiveness. Last season, he had 23 goals, 61 points and was plus-19 in 56 games before he was exposed in the playoffs.

He spent the first 19 games this year floating around the perimeter, drawing his linemates offside, giving away the puck and generally wasting space. Edmonton's Jarret Stoll was the only forward in the league who had a worse plus-minus than Afinogenov's minus-9 going into the game Friday night.

Afinogenov has three goals and eight points, putting him on pace for 12 goals and 32 points. How does a man blessed with so much give so little? It's a question the Sabres need to ask in the coming months. Opposing defenses have effectively negated their speed this season, taking away his effectiveness.

The Sabres are left with a few options. Ruff can find a way to get more out of the winger's talent, Afinogenov can adjust his game, or they can start shopping him. For now, they're working on the first two alternatives. If Ruff ever reaches his breaking point, they'll need to consider the third.


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