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Bruins at Sabres
Afinogenov returns tonight; Connolly not quite ready

Lindy Ruff told the Buffalo media Wednesday that Maxim Afinogenov could play in all three remaining regular season games.
BUFFALO (LGS) — UPDATED — With the Buffalo Sabres locked into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the focus is now on tuning up their game and getting it to a level they feel will bring the ultimate hockey prize to Buffalo this spring.

That includes integrating players who are ready to come off of the injured list.

As the the Sabres prepare for their final home game of the regular season — a 7 p.m. (MSG-TV/WGR-AM) faceoff against the Boston Bruins on Thursday — the buzz around town has been focusing squarely on the final two injured Sabres capable of returning to the lineup.

Forwards Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly have practiced all week, and both continue to improve each day.

“My ultimate focus is having the team ready to play in the playoffs,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “And as a staff, if we feel that getting Tim in and getting Max in is going to be effective and help our team, then it would be to our advantage to get them in.”

When asked about the status of Connolly for Thursday’s game, Ruff said that he wanted to put Connolly in more game-like situations during practice before playing him in a game.

“(He’s) practicing at maybe 80 percent right now,” Ruff said of Connolly’s status. “I’d like to put him inside some of those drills and utilize him in those situations we’d utilize him in a game. That would probably have to happen on Friday.”

Connolly has been injured since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last May. The skillful centerman had to deal with headaches, neck problems and — most recently — a stress fracture below his right knee. All of the injuries have hampered his return, which makes it more exciting for him being this close to returning to the ice.

“Now, I’m pretty happy,” he said after a smile and a laugh. “But it’s been a long, tough battle. It’s behind me now, and I’m just looking forward to the next day, and see what I can get done and get myself back playing again.”

Meanwhile yesterday — aside from Connolly’s status being deliberated by all parties involved — Ruff didn’t count out the return of throttle-junkie Afinogenov, the injured right winger.

“Max is very close to coming back,” Ruff told the media Wednesday. “(He’s) a possibility for all three (games).”

UPDATE: Afinogenov confirmed with reporters this morning that he will be in the lineup tonight against the Bruins, he just doesn't know who his linemates will be.

Afinogenov last played 22 games ago in a 2-1 overtime victory over the Edmonton Oilers. He scored the only regulation goal of the game for Buffalo, just a few minutes after breaking his wrist.

While the interest is certainly focusing on the return of the injured players, attention should also be given to the team clinching the Eastern Conference’s top seed for the upcoming playoffs.

"Everything we do now really doesn't matter," Jochen Hecht said. "We're focused. We've accomplished a little thing with winning the conference. But it's not our main goal."

The team is coming off of an impressive game in Pittsburgh Tuesday night, a 4-1 win. The team shut down one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses, as well as the league’s leading-scorer, Sidney Crosby.

It was the first time Buffalo had held the whiz-kid without a point since he entered the league last season.

Thomas Vanek scored his 40th goal of the season while Dmitri Kalinin, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy also scored for Buffalo.

Boston (35-39-6) enters the game hoping to take some value out of a three-game road trip that has seen them lose both of their first two contests, including a 2-0 shutout in Montreal Tuesday night.

The Bruins have fallen apart down this final stretch of the season, having lost four straight and nine of their last 10 games.

"I thought (the team) stuck together very well," Bruins' coach Dave Lewis said on the team's official Web site. "We worked hard, we generated chances and right now we are just sort of snake bitten in the scoring department."

Buffalo has a 5-0-2 record in its previous seven meetings with Boston this season and is 12-1-2 since the lockout ended.

Fun Fact of the Game:

  • With one more win in the final three regular-season games, Ryan Miller will become the franchise’s record-holder for wins in a single season. His 38 victories are tied with Don Edwards, who set the record in 1977-78.
By Timothy Chipp, LGS Columnist
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