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Afinogenov slides down the forwards' depth chart

NEW YORK -- There is a demotion lower than the fourth line, and Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff indicated he isn't afraid to show winger Maxim Afinogenov where that is.

Maxim was minimized to marginal status in Friday night's comeback over the New York Rangers in Game Two of their Eastern Conference semifinal showdown. If last season's team scoring leader doesn't straighten up, Ruff said he wouldn't hesitate to scratch him.

"Anything I do is going to be based on what I think is best for the team," Ruff said Saturday afternoon before the team jetted to New York for today's Game Three in Madison Square Garden. "If I feel somebody else can step in and be more effective, it'll only be because I think it's better for the team.

"I mean, I like Max. I think Max is a great guy. But it's just going to come down to what is going to give us the best chance to win. It's either play well or he may play [on the fourth line]. He may not play."

When asked if Afinogenov definitely would dress this afternoon, Ruff replied he and his staff "haven't made any decision."

Afinogenov skated with center Tim Connolly and winger Adam Mair at Saturday's practice in HSBC Arena. Although that's not a fourth line by most standards, it represents the bottom for the Sabres.

That Ruff dropped Afinogenov and moved winger Ales Kotalik and Drew Stafford to other lines was symbolic. When healthy, Afinogenov all season had been a fixture on a sensational line with center Derek Roy and left winger Thomas Vanek.

"It doesn't matter where I'm going to play," Afinogenov told a crowd of reporters huddled around his locker stall. "As long as the team's winning, you know?

"For me, it's like, I can't play goalie. I can't take the spot of [Ryan Miller]. I'm OK with that. But as long as the team wins, I'm OK. I want to win the Cup. That's the most important thing."

Unless Afinogenov discovers how to avoid, as Ruff called them, the "wee, little plays that end up being turnovers or giveaways going the other way," the speedy winger could be reduced to as many minutes as backup goalie Ty Conklin.

Afinogenov, who came up small for much of last year's playoffs, took zero shots in Game Two, was charged with three giveaways and took a bad penalty in the second period.

"I need him to play better. I'm not going to duck that issue," Ruff said. "He needs to be better with the puck. He has to cut down on turnovers and giveaways and just be better in that area. Simplify his game."

Ruff also was unhappy with Afinogenov staying on the ice too long.

"He wants so bad to contribute and play good," Ruff said. "You end up stretching shifts out. I said again a couple days ago it has to be short shifts or the next guy in line misses his shift. Now I've got Player C that hasn't gone on the ice for three or four minutes. That starts a vicious cycle on our team."

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Ruff expressed regret over his tirade at the final horn Friday night. Incensed over a sequence of calls and non-calls, he berated the officials. He needed to be restrained from going onto the ice and tossed a few items in disgust.

The reigning Jack Adams Award winner was assessed a gross misconduct penalty, which brings an automatic $200 fine and perhaps additional punishment after a league review.

"I didn't handle it very well," Ruff said. "I'm not happy with myself, with what happened there. Emotions ran a little bit high. It was what it was, but it's over."

In the final minutes of Game Two, with the Sabres clinging to a 3-2 lead, Rangers forward Sean Avery punched Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere in the face but wasn't penalized. Moments later, Briere was booked for cross-checking to put the Sabres down a man for the final 1:54. On the power play, Ruff thought the linesmen missed an offside and the Rangers had too many men on the ice.

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Hobbled Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival didn't practice again Saturday, but coach Tom Renney conveyed optimism Rozsival would play today. Rozsival left Game One with a sprained knee after absorbing a Kotalik check, and went off the ice for repairs in Game Two because of a Dmitri Kalinin hit.

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Renney said he would re-insert winger Jed Ortmeyer one game after benching him in favor of Brad Isbister, who didn't play the last five games of the regular season or in the first-round sweep of Atlanta. Renney said Isbister would remain in the lineup. Ryan Hollweg likely would be the one to sit.

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When the Sabres acquired winger Dainius Zubrus from the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline, General Manager Darcy Regier didn't hide from the fact the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent probably would be a rental player.

The way Zubrus is performing, the Sabres might be interested in a rent-to-own plan.

"You hope he enjoys it," Ruff said of Buffalo's playoff run. "You hope he enjoys his role. You hope the way things turn out and if we keep going, you'd love to hear Zubie say, 'I'd like to stay.' I think he fits. He fits how we play. But that's his decision. But from my standpoint, he's played pretty well for us."

Zubrus was a bull in Game Two. He delivered a playoff-high nine hits, eight of which he laid inside the first two periods. Zubrus didn't have a point in Game Two but leads the Sabres in playoff assists with six.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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