Benched in Game 4 after an ineffective first three games, the Russian winger was dynamite Friday night and he was also the overtime hero as the Buffalo Sabres moved to within one win of a return trip to the NHL’s Eastern Conference final.
“He was back to being himself,” said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, who decided to put him back in for Game 5. “He was skating well and challenging players and doing all that stuff. It was the old Max tonight.”
Afinogenov scored 4:39 into the fourth period to give the Sabres a dramatic 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven showdown.
“Probably the biggest goal of my career,” said Afinogenov.
The goal came with Buffalo on the power play, the Sabres connecting for the first time on six chances on the night and only their fourth power-play goal in 31 chances for the series.
The Sabres avoided what looked like sure defeat until Captain Clutch, Chris Drury, tied it with 7.7 seconds left in the third period.
“The puck can find him, he’ll score the big goal,” Ruff said of his co-captain.
The goal had the Sabres’ dressing room humming before overtime.
“The room was pumped up,” said Afinogenov.
Having killed off a penalty of their own right off the hop in overtime, the Sabres then had their chance with the man advantage when Blair Betts went off for hooking and Afinogenov didn’t waste any time, powering a blast from the point that beat Henrik Lundqvist five-hole.
Afinogenov dove to centre ice in celebration, mobbed by his teammates, a sellout crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Arena going berzerk.
“I just wanted to celebrate and nothing was coming from my head so I just dove (to centre ice),” Afinogenov said with a laugh.
Game 6 goes Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden (2 p.m. ET) and no doubt Lundqivst and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller will once again treat fans to a netminder’s duel.
Lundqvist was superb in defeat Friday, stopping 38 of 40 shots. Miller stopped 22 of 23 shots.
Rangers head coach Tom Renney still believes in his team but told his players much more was expected from them.
“I just told them we’re not going to win many with our ‘B’ game,” Renney said. “If we afford our opponents another chance like this the series will be over.”
The Rangers will need to quickly put the loss behind them, though forward Jaromir Jagr said that won’t be easy.
“That hurts, there’s no question about it,” said Jagr. “That’s probably the toughest (loss) for me in five years.”
The Sabres dominated and deserved to win, outshooting the Rangers by 17 shots and getting most of the scoring chances. But Martin Straka gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead with 3:19 to go in the third period when his wrist shot from the left faceoff circle eluded Miller and beat him stick side just under the crossbar.
“With three minutes left we could have packed it in but we stayed with it,” said Drury. “I’d say that was a pretty gutsy win.”
Drury tied it when he slipped in a rebound from the side of the net and Miller on the bench for a sixth attacker, setting up overtime in the pivotal game of the series.
The comeback should have surprised no one. The Sabres led the NHL with 10 wins this season in which they erased two-goal deficits.
“We’ve had a lot of victories when it looked like we’re down and out but we pull it out,” said Ruff. “We have that belief that it can be done.”
It was a low-scoring game but that wasn’t indicative of the entertainment value, a hard-fought affair dominated by the play of both goalies.
Ruff promised his team would come out aggressively and they did just that, Daniel Briere almost scoring right off the bat but stopped by a wonderful pad save from Lundqvist. Briere had another good chance foiled by a Lundqvist pad save a few shifts later.
Buffalo forward Paul Gaustad made his return to play after missing three months with a severed tendon above his left ankle. On his very first shift he hammered Rangers defenceman Fedor Tyutin along the glass, igniting calls of “Goose, Goose,” Gaustad’s nickname.
It was Miller’s time to shine in the second period, stopping Jaromir Jagr from in-close on a New York power play and stoning Brendan Shanahan with a stellar pad save moments later.
The Sabres then buzzed and buzzed and buzzed for the rest of the second period, but couldn’t beat a rock solid Lundqvist. Afinogenov nearly squeezed one in after a dangerous rush and Briere almost fooled Lundqivst with a wrist shot, the puck dropping between the goalie’s legs but not going in.
The Sabres outshot the Rangers 17-6 in the second period but still found themselves tied 0-0.
Sabres forward Dainius Zubrus has been a thorn in Jagr’s side all series long, highlighted by a huge hip check on the Czech star in Game 2, and perhaps enough was enough because Jagr shoved then punched Zubrus near the end of the middle period, earning a roughing penalty.
The first half of the third period was a little more cautious on both sides. The Rangers thought they had opened the scoring at 12:14 when Michael Nylander beat Miller on a 2-on-1, but the goal was waived off after Rangers winger Brad Isbister was called for goaltender interference on the play.
Notes: The Rangers went 0-for-7 on the power play … Forwards Ryan Hollweg and Colton Orr and defenceman Thomas Pock were healthy scratches for the Rangers … Rookie Drew Stafford was the odd man out with the return of Gaustad. Forwards Daniel Paille and Andrew Peters and defenceman Nathan Paetsch were also scratched.