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Ruff gets high marks in chemistry class

NEW YORK -- Lindy Ruff took himself out to the woodshed Saturday and gave himself a good spanking for his meltdown over the officiating in the closing minutes of Game Two. He admitted he overreacted and all but suggested he deserved whatever fine the NHL was ready to impose.

If anything, though, the Buffalo Sabres coach merely confirmed he has a more difficult time managing his emotions than he does his personnel. Nobody needs a reminder about his playoff success. He's been masterful again this year, but anybody would be hard-pressed to goof up this lineup.

You want depth?

Ruff refused to rule out the possibility that Maxim Afinogenov, his fastest and most dynamic player who averaged more than a point per game this season, could wind up in the press box if he keeps throwing the puck away. Afinogenov remained on the fourth line Saturday, assuming the Sabres have a fourth line.

Some demotion. For anyone else, it's a promotion. Afinogenov will likely play today with Tim Connolly and Adam Mair, a painter and a plumber, with whom his opportunities to make something happen could increase tenfold despite fewer minutes. If that doesn't work, Afinogenov could wind up watching Game Four.

Ruff has that option because his roster is deeper than the Atlantic, both the ocean and the division. He could throw the names of 12 regulars into a hat, pick three at a time and come away with four lines that were functional for the playoffs. Let's face it, he couldn't find a terrible combination if he tried.

Understand, Afinogenov's relocation to the fourth line was not about punishing the skilled winger. Ruff couldn't afford to be sending messages with his team trailing by a goal going into the third period. Afinogenov wasn't doing the job, plain and simple, so Ruff found someone who did.

His decision to move Drew Stafford from left wing on Chris Drury's line to right wing on Derek Roy's line hardly was an epiphany. Ruff needed to arouse his lines. He had been holding that card all along. Stafford answered with a perfect feed for Thomas Vanek's winner, and the Sabres escaped from a game in which they were outplayed.

"I got in my pocket that Stafford, Vanek and Roy were a good line," Ruff said. "It's sitting there in my pocket. Do I play that one or do I wait? I didn't like what I was seeing, and I thought we had to get something going."

No matter who winds up where, the Sabres are stronger across their four than the Rangers are their three, plus baggage forwards in Jed Ortmeyer, Ryan Hollweg and Colton Orr. Buffalo has quality players in excess, New York does not, and that's been a key difference between the two teams in this series.

Ruff has made changes all year, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of convenience, sometimes just because he can. Years ago, it was called the struggle and juggle. Now, it's called recreating chemistry. And because the Sabres have become so familiar playing with one another, it rarely fails.

Really, what other coach blows up both power-play units after winning the first round in five games? None, but that's precisely what Ruff did. He abandoned that experiment in the opener, Connolly back to the point from the wing. He changed again during Game Two. All this from a team that won six of seven playoff games.

Nobody should be surprised if Ruff does it again today if he's not satisfied with their performance. Take one guy out, plug another guy in, and wait for sweet music. Don't be surprised if the so-called fourth line produces at least one goal this afternoon with Afinogenov and Connolly buzzing around.

Ruff wasn't backing off the Afinogenov issue, either. He made it clear the right winger needs to simplify his game, forget the flash and dash, and start making the intelligent decisions that win playoff games. Don't want to do that, Max? Daniel Paille can easily be inserted. And at what cost, fewer turnovers?

"It's a luxury we have, there's no doubt about that," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "It's going to help even more as the series goes. It's going to pay more dividends. It's a good luxury to have, when you're not afraid to throw your fourth line out there. They're dangerous every time they jump on."

Rangers coach Tom Renney can't afford such risks. Jaromir Jagr, who has been contained on the scoreboard but remains the Sabres' biggest migraine, will play 20-plus minutes today no matter how he performs. You think Renney can push his superstar down with the grunts and expect improvement?

Not a chance.

Ruff massages his lineup the way he sees fit and nobody blinks, including Afinogenov. If he was angry about his demotion/promotion, he certainly didn't show as much Saturday. His teammates gushed over him the way he gushed over them when his fanny was nailed to the bench. What else could he do? He knew Stafford was as good, or better.

Once he took Stafford off Chris Drury's line, it meant a promotion for Ales Kotalik. The right winger moved to the left side, opposite Dainus Zubrus, which was where Kotalik played before Afinogenov came back from his broken wrist. And as they did during his time on the shelf, the Sabres simply rolled along.

It will be interesting to see what other concoctions Ruff comes up with for Game Three. The only line that hasn't really been touched all season is Daniel Briere flanked by Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville, but that could change if they don't start burying their scoring chances. Ruff's has options, and there's no telling what he'll pull from his hat.

"What do you do," Briere said, "when Paul Gaustad is ready to play?"

Precisely.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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