Goals come in bunches as Buffalo Sabres adapt to the new NHL

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Without a certified superstar, the Sabres have piled up goals early in the season.

"We're a smaller, faster team, so that helps with the new rules," Sabres forward Derek Roy said.

Roy and linemates Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek have been the hottest trio in the league, but the Sabres still have Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Jason Pominville and a string of others contributing goals.

Their wins have included a 9-1 thumping of Philadelphia, 7-4 over the New York Rangers and Saturday's 6-2 win over Boston.

Much of the credit goes to Sabres management, which anticipated where the sport was headed after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

They saw that having a quick, two-way team with smaller, faster players would rule in a league with two-line passes allowed and with a crackdown on obstruction fouls like hooking, holding and interference.

"We built our team around skill and speed and we stay away from penalties, which helps the offence," said Roy. "We've had all four lines going well and that's a key, too.

"In the third period or in overtime, we're not as tired as other teams because we roll four lines."

Heading into Monday's game against the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo led the league with 42 goals scored.

The Sabres surprised many by reaching the Eastern Conference final last spring before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina in seven games. They've come back even stronger this season.

"We adapted," said coach Lindy Ruff. "We had a lot of pieces in place that were good for the new game.

"But I really thought the league was serious when they talked about making the calls - freeing up the skilled players, no more putting sticks on people. And we had good, mobile players. Maybe we didn't have elite players, but we've got a lot of very good two-way players. Our success comes from that."

No one represents the current Sabres better than Afinogenov, who emerged from the weekend leading the NHL in scoring.

Before the lockout, when he mostly stayed out on the edges of the action, Afinogenov's best season on offence was 40 points in 2001-02.

But last season, the 27-year-old was all over the ice and led the Sabres with 73 points. The former Dynamo Moscow star looks poised to increase that total in 2006-07.

"The new game has helped him," added Ruff. "The fact that you're not allowed to get sticks on him and impede him has made him a better playmaker.

"He's a good goal-scorer, but with his speed and agility he's a tremendous playmaker at the same time. He's figured out really what his true value is to the team and he's utilizing that."

Afinogenov's old Dynamo teammate, defenceman Andrei Markov of the Canadiens, agreed.

"He always had great speed and skills, but now he has confidence and he feels more comfortable," said Markov.

The Canadiens are another smaller team that looks to have adapted well to the new NHL, although grudgingly in the case of defenceman Sheldon Souray.

A big, physical defenceman, he has struggled at times to hold off attackers without committing fouls, although he makes up for it with a rocket shot that produced five power-play goals in the team's first seven games.

"I'm still trying to figure out the rules myself, but there are guys who are able to take advantage of rules that don't punish people for being in front of the net," said Souray. "Guys who were afraid to come in and get a stick in the back can sit there now and have a picnic.

"It's definitely changed. And they (Buffalo) have guys who are more suited for that kind of game than a couple of years ago, obviously."

The effects of the officiating changes around the league have been Darwinian, with those able to adapt succeeding and those following old ways dropping off.

The shake-up that saw GM Bob Clarke and coach Ken Hitchcock leave the 1-6-1 Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday was widely seen as the result of the team's reliance on slower, more physical players, especially on defence.

"Look at guys who are having success and guys who are not," added Souray. "Guys like Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin (both of the St. Louis Blues), who in the old NHL were unbelievable players.

"You take away their big assets and it puts you behind the eight-ball. So you have to adjust and Buffalo has guys who have done a good job, like Afinogenov and Briere. Those guys are good players and they deserve the respect they're getting now."

Note - With Radek Bonk out with back spasms, the Canadiens recalled centre Maxim Lapierre from the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs on Monday.



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