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AFINOGENOV TAKING GAME TO THE MAX

Maxim Afinogenov knew he was supposed to be baffling somebody.

Apparently he just wasn't sure whether it was supposed to be opposing goaltenders or his own teammates.

The Buffalo Sabres' enigmatic right wing has looked like a player worthy of a good benching many times this season. Jaw-dropping speed and fancy stickwork were plentiful. Smart decisions were scarce.

But lately Afinogenov has been putting together a more complete game, a pleasant trend the Sabres hope continues tonight at 7:30 against the New Jersey Devils in HSBC Arena (Empire; Radio 107.7 FM).

Afinogenov has three goals and two assists in his past five games, including one of each in Thursday's 3-1 home victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.

"I just want to do the best for my team and do whatever I can do," Afinogenov said. "I just want to play hard."

The second-year Russian forward has been riding a wave of confidence since scoring overtime winners in consecutive games last week against the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. It was the first time anyone had accomplished such a feat since the five-minute OT was instituted 17 years ago.

On Thursday, Afinogenov scored another dramatic goal. He took a lob pass from Miroslav Satan near center ice and entered the Thrashers' zone virtually hip-to-hip with defenseman Jiri Slegr. As Afinogenov homed in on goalie Damian Rhodes, he skated Slegr's stick off, lost the puck, quickly recovered it and finally wristed it home.

"Sometimes you get lucky," Afinogenov said with a chuckle. "But when you work hard, the luck comes to you."

Afinogenov has had to work his way off the fourth line a few times and now is on the top scoring unit with center Stu Barnes and Satan, who was switched from the right side to accommodate Afinogenov.

Afinogenov's promotion came when J.P. Dumont strained a rib muscle Tuesday against Atlanta. Dumont, Buffalo's leading scorer much of the season, missed Thursday's rematch and is questionable for tonight.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff noted that even if Dumont were healthy, Afinogenov would stay put.

"He deserves it," Ruff said. "It's really based on accountability, and I liked the way that line played. It's a shift for Miro to go from right to left, which he's really not fond of, but you have to do things for the team every now and then."

Satan's game hasn't dropped off since the flip-flop. He has three goals and three assists in four games. He opened the scoring Thursday when Afinogenov created space and fed him the puck on the doorstep.

"It's a good time for somebody to get hot," center Chris Gratton said. "That line's getting it done right now."

Afinogenov, who has 12 goals, leads Buffalo with five game-winners. He has 18 assists, but 10 of those came in his first 21 games.

The Sabres attribute Afinogenov's offensive resurgance to the development of his overall game.

"Every European who comes here is offensive-minded, but in this kind of hockey you have to play defense also," Satan said. "That's what every European player goes through, to be more responsible and make some defensive plays. That's what he's learning, and he's doing a good job. He's becoming an all-around player."

Ruff saw things he liked out of Afinogenov on Thursday. There was smarter passing, better defensive positioning and not as much carelessness in the neutral zone.

"He was the first guy back a couple times. He was in real good position when he scored the goal," Ruff said.

"The one thing we've been trying to do is work extremely hard on getting Max to use the other guys he's playing with and being in a little better position defensively. That won't hurt him at all offensively.

"It's all little things you gotta keep hammering away on. That's the reason a lot of times he gets bumped to the fourth line and gets bumped back up again. But if he plays like he did (Thursday) night, then you know he's got it in him.

"He's got that capability of winning the game himself."

BUFFALO SABRES
Who's hot: LW Miroslav Satan has three goals and three assists the past four games.
Record last 5: 3-2
Power play: 37 of 253 (14.6%)
Penalty killing: 28 of 224 (87.5%)
Injuries: LW Dave Andreychuk (knee), RW J.P. Dumont (thoracic muscle strain), C Doug Gilmour (flu), C Denis Hamel (knee, out for season).
Fast fact: Have outscored Devils, 9-2, in two games this season.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Who's hot: C Petr Sykora scored two goals Friday night.
Record last 5: 1-1-3
Power play: 44 of 207 (17.5%)
Penalty killing: 32 of 219 (85.4%)
Injuries: C Jason Arnott (shoulder), RW Alexander Mogilny (pulled stomach muscle), D Scott Niedermayer (knee), D Brian Rafalski (shoulder), C Bobby Holik (knee).
Fast fact: Devils are 0-9-4-2 when trailing after after two periods.

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