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Top Shelf: Max cracks as Sabres struggle

Maxim Afinogenov is a team-worst minus-9 with only three goals and six points in 19 games.

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Maxim Afinogenov is a team-worst minus-9 with only three goals and six points in 19 games.

The Buffalo Sabres knew they had to overcome the loss of two stars players, but nobody told them about the third.

It used to be hard to see Maxim Afinogenov; his blinding speed often made it appear he was powered by rocket fuel while opposing defensemen were running on fumes.

But this year, the 28-year-old Russian has been just plain invisible.

At the season’s quarter pole, Afinogenov is a team-worst minus-9.

I’m sure coach Lindy Ruff would happily put up with some defensive deficiencies if it meant Afinogenov was buzzing around the offensive zone the way he has since the NHL’s crackdown on obstruction. However, the guy who put up 134 points in 133 games over the first two post-lockout seasons has a measly three goals and six points through 19 games.

He’s on pace for a 26-point, minus-39 campaign.

With the exception of alphabetically, the guy who was supposed to lead Buffalo’s offense in the absence of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury is at or near the back of the class in every category.

Entering Friday night’s game versus Montreal, 11 Sabres have more points than Afinogenov. Nine have more goals.

Truly numbing numbers.

And they’re made even more shocking when you consider Afinogenov is far from the only forward in Buffalo who’s struggling. Even Thomas Vanek, who’s set to make about $500,000 per goal this year, has more than doubled Afinogenov’s point total.

Last year, Afinogenov graced the cover of The Hockey News accompanied by the headline ‘Buffalo to the Max.’ That story was about how he and the hard-charging Sabres were tearing through the league.

This year, the story would be about Afinogenov pushing Buffalo fans to the brink of insanity. It takes a lot to disappoint a crew jaded by wide-right field goals and foot-in-crease Cup winners, but Afinogenov is turning the trick.

Granted, consistency has never been his thing, but there’s no definitive explanation for a drop this severe.

In the aftermath of rule changes tailored perfectly for his game, it seemed Afinogenov’s place among the league’s elite scorers was assured. Clutch-and-grab hockey choked his creativity, as Afinogenov averaged just 0.46 points per game prior to the lockout.

That seemed like a dead issue the past couple of years, but all of a sudden the ‘explosive’ label Afinogenov carried in recent times has been replaced by one Sabres fans hoped was buried forever; ‘enigmatic.’ Any less production and it’s going to seem like the guy evaporated.

So what happened?

A guy who’s been mentioned in the same breath as Pavel Bure in terms of pure foot-speed surely has what it takes to fight through the tougher checking he faces in the absence of Briere and Drury.

You can’t even argue he’s crumbling under the pressure of being the lone dust bunny in a talent vacuum because the likes of Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy are also counted on to create goals.

Then again, Afinogenov hasn’t exactly shone when the heat gets turned up a few degrees.

Even in the post-lockout era, where the referees actually continue calling penalties in the playoffs, Afinogenov has failed to maintain his regular season scoring pace during the spring.

Through Buffalo’s consecutive runs to the conference final, he’s managed 17 points in 33 games. That’s a lot closer to his old hockey world totals than the point-a-game player he’s been the last two seasons.

Ruff was so displeased with Afinogenov’s play last spring, he actually scratched him for Game 4 of the Sabres’ second round series versus the Rangers.

Afinogenov returned to score the overtime winner in Game 5. How Buffalo and its fans would dearly love to see a resurrection that dramatic from their speedster.

Fast.

Top Shelf appears every second Friday only on thehockeynews.com.

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