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Afinogenov leaves foes blurry-eyed

The wrist? Maxim Afinogenov, who had been giving a thoughtful and talkative interview up until that question, smiled.

"It's good," the Buffalo Sabres winger said, looking a reporter in the eye to emphasize that was his answer in its entirety.

Could he put a percentage on his wrist's strength? Eighty percent, maybe? Ninety?

"It's just good," Afinogenov said.

Then, begging elaboration, came a stare down and uncomfortable silence.

"I feel good," he said with a laugh and a shrug.

The wrist isn't operating at full capacity, of course. There were legitimate doubts Afinogenov would be available for the first round of the playoffs because he had broken a delicate bone in his left wrist, the one he uses to shoot the puck.

The wrist, however, isn't what makes Afinogenov one of the league's most feared forwards. Unfortunately for the New York Islanders, those fast-twitch leg muscles are as devastating as ever and will be on display when their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series opens tonight in HSBC Arena.

"He's still going to create chances. Trust me," Sabres winger Dainius Zubrus said. "You saw it the last three games he has played. He probably would like to shoot the puck a little harder, but his legs are there."

Afinogenov came back to skate in the final three games of the regular season and provided offense with his dizzying presence. He was a blur on the ice, backing defensemen off to offer time and space for himself and his linemates.

"Probably a nightmare," is how left winger Thomas Vanek imagined defenders view Afinogenov. "It's definitely a different game with him. He takes it, skates all over and creates a lot more chances for us."

Afinogenov had four assists in his three postseason tune-ups.

"It was nice to get three games to play in the [regular] season, just to be ready and be in action and be with the guys," Afinogenov said. "The playoffs is going to be different games, a different level, more speed, more battles. I just hope I prepared through those three games."

Afinogenov humbly noted the Sabres were in first place when he got hurt Feb. 15 and remained in first place without him.

But the whole team dynamic changes when Afinogenov is in uniform. While he was recovering from a broken scaphoid, a tiny wrist bone below the thumb, the Sabres won 12 of the 21 games he missed.

"You have to know when he's out there at all times for his speed because he will burn you," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. "You have to realize he's there and what he's doing. Some guys you play against that are elite players, you know that they're out there and they can burn you down low or be physical and stuff. But he can just burn you flat-out with speed and stickhandling."

Afinogenov led the Sabres in scoring last season with 22 goals and 51 assists, both career highs. His 11 power-play goals were almost four times higher than his previous best.

His pace was even more torrid this season. He established another personal watermark on Feb. 15, when he scored his 23rd goal, ignorant of the fact he had broken his wrist a couple of shifts before. He finished with 61 points in just 56 games.

Only co-captain Daniel Briere, who rolled up 95 points, had a higher per-game average than Afinogenov.

Afinogenov enters the postseason with a little something to prove. He was criticized last spring for his inability to finish some glorious chances, missed opportunities that turned out to be costly in a couple of games. In 18 postseason games he had three goals and five assists, the same numbers posted by checker Mike Grier.

"I just want to win," Afinogenov said. "It doesn't matter if I get any points or not. I just want to win the games and win the Cup. I'll take zero points to win the Cup, you know what I mean?"

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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