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Sabres fans being treated to Max thrills

If you close your eyes and listen to the crowd, you can hear the place come alive with yesteryear's sounds of Memorial Auditorium. Gilbert Perreault was the only player in Buffalo Sabres' history who could bring fans to their feet by merely gaining possession, turning a low hum into a throaty roar as their momentum reflected his.

It's a shame kids nowadays don't understand Perreault the way they did some 30 years ago. Young people know him today as the guy who does the Elvis impersonation after every Sabres' win in HSBC Arena, not the dynamic superstar from the 1970s who carried the franchise during its infancy.

We've learned that players like him come around only once in a generation, so here's hoping young people today appreciate what they're seeing as they watch Maxim Afinogenov skate circles around the NHL. He's their modern-day Perreault, only faster, like Perreault a rarity who single-handedly justifies the price of admission.

Fans were on the edge of their seats again Thursday night every time he had the puck on his stick and his foot to the floor in a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. The biggest ovation through the first two periods came not when Thomas Vanek scored Buffalo's first goal but when Afinogenov was stopped on a breakaway.

It's not much different on the bench. The Sabres have marveled for seven years while watching him wheel and deal. They've witnessed just about everything, and their eyes continue to deceive them. You want entertainment? Just listen.

Coach Lindy Ruff: "He can absolutely stop on a dime, turn on a dime, give you change for the dime. . . . There are things he does that nobody else can do. He does some things that should come with a WARNING sign: This can be hazardous to your health."

Derek Roy: "I see him every day and in every situation, so I know what he can do out there. It still blows me away."

Vanek: "I don't think he knows himself what he's going to do. He's so quick, he's so fast. He might have something already planned, but with his speed, all of a sudden he'll twist or turn or do something out of the ordinary."

Daniel Briere: "He's got so much skill that you can see him beat the same guy three times on the same shift. He does things sometimes that leave you shaking your head. You're like, 'Where is that coming from?' "

Good question. Afinogenov hasn't a clue what's doing until he's doing it. In that way, he's like all the great ones in professional sports. Gale Sayers and Michael Jordan could never explain their magic did because their bodies merely followed their instincts. Everybody else just sits back and enjoys.

Afinogenov leads the league in points per minutes played this season, so he's maximizing his shifts, too. He has 14 goals and 36 points, two points behind Briere, who has played five more games. Briere is convinced this is only the beginning, that Afinogenov only recently has started tapping into his true potential.

If that's the case, it's scary.

For all his speed, signs he's becoming a complete player were on display when he was stationary Thursday night. He set up the first goal after rifling a pass to Roy in the high slot while standing in the right circle. Vanek picked up the loose change to give the Sabres an early lead. Afinogenov was parked outside the crease and roofed a pass from Chris Drury for the winner in the third period.

It wasn't vintage Afinogenov by any means, and that's what was most impressive. It was the most exciting player this town has witnessed in a generation using smarts over skill. And moments later, after he twirled around the ice as the game's first star, the only sound from yesteryear was Perreault's impersonation of Elvis.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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