The Sabres can take a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with a win Sunday at Madison Square Garden and once again Zubrus will be matched up against Jaromir Jagr’s top line.
“It’s important to know when he’s on the ice and be close to him,” Zubrus said Saturday after practice. “And if there’s time to finish a check, you finish it.”
Zubrus sent Jagr flying late in the second period of Friday night’s 3-2 win in Game 2, a hip check that had 18,690 fans on their feet at HSBC Arena.
“I think I’m playing more physical now that I’m back on the wing,” said Zubrus, who played centre alongside Alex Ovechkin in Washington this season before being dealt at the deadline.
Some deadline deals don’t pan out but the Sabres have lucked out with Zubrus, whose adjustment to the wing has been smooth while playing with centre Chris Drury.
“I’ve pretty well seen everything from him, from the physical side to the playmaking side,” said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. “I know he hasn’t been on the scoresheet from a goal standpoint but his intangibles – the penalty killing work, the work he’s done against their top line, we really did feel he’d be a big addition.
“And with our big forward (Paul) Gaustad out, he’s really filled a big void.”
While Ruff has rewarded Zubrus’ work with plenty of ice time, winger Afinogenov, who had 61 points (23-38) in 56 games this season, was demoted to the fourth line during Friday’s game.
“In Max’s case, I need him to play better, I’m not going to duck that issue, he needs to be better with the puck, he needs to cut down on turnovers and giveaways. Simplify his game,” said Ruff.
“I like Max, he’s a great guy. But it’s going to come down to what is going to give the best chance to win.”
Don’t rule out Ruff making Afinogenov a healthy scratch if his play doesn’t improve.
“It’s either play well, or he may play where he’s at (fourth line), or he may not play. That could be a possibility,” warned Ruff.
Afinogenov didn’t seem to know what all the fuss was about.
“I think I’m playing pretty good,” he said after practice. “Maybe I’m not scoring but I’m getting chances.”
To his credit, he supported his teammates during Friday’s game and didn’t react negatively.
“It doesn’t matter where I play, as long as the team wins,” Afinogenov said.
Co-captain Daniel Briere liked the way Afinogenov responded to his demotion.
“Very positive, kept cheering, was very happy after the game,” Briere said. “And I know how he feels, you’re not happy with your game, you’re frustrated that it’s not working out. But the first goal is to win games and you’re happy that the team is winning games.”
Afinogenov committed two no-nos that got under Ruff’s skin – long shifts and too many giveaways.
“I think when you’re struggling, he wants so bad to contribute and play good and you end stretching shifts,” Ruff said. “It has
to be short shifts or else the next guy in line misses his shift. . . .
“He’s going to have to simplify, he’s going to have to be better with the puck. He’s struggled with the puck.”
While Afinogenov looks to find his game, Zubrus is soaking it all in. The 28-year-old has waited a long time for a playoff run.
“For sure it’s very nice to be in the playoffs,” said Zubrus. “Since my rookie year (in Philadelphia) I’ve never been past the first round. And I’ve been in the playoffs three times since then. It’s nice to be in an atmosphere like this, the city and the fans are so much behind us.”
He’s an unrestricted free agent July 1, which is why the Capitals dealt him after failing to re-sign him. Zubrus isn’t sure what the future holds for him in Buffalo.
“This question probably should be raised at the end of the season, we’re hoping that’s in mid-June,” he said. “But it’s a good team, the city and the fans have been good to me. Definitely I think (re-signing with Buffalo) is an option.”
Note: The Sabres are trying to ignore Rangers pest Sean Avery but they weren’t pleased with his antics from Game 2. “He did spear Jason (Pominville),” Briere said Saturday. “And then on the faceoff with me late in the game, I had my head down low ready to take the faceoff and next thing you know I got hit in the face – I don’t know if it was a slap or a punch. But I just felt a glove come my way. A lot of guys told me it should have been a penalty. But you know, we just ignore him, just let him yap, it’s not going to change anything for us.”