A team that came within a period of the Stanley Cup finals. A second export to the Syracuse basketball factory. A head coach that isn’t Mike Mularkey.

Think there aren’t enough helpings of sports thankfulness to force the belt down a few notches this season? If so, you’re missing so much entertainment, your monthly bill must have a Time Warner stamp.

As one of the best regular season sports weekends in recent memory approaches, grab the clicker, close your eyes and pretend you have the NFL Network while reciting sports grace.

On this day, I’m thankful for:

• Maxim Afinogenov. No specific reason, but whenever I see 61 has the biscuit it’s a bigger rush than a shot of Primatine.

I define Sabre fan generations through rivals. If your plasma still curdles when the Flyers come to town, you’ve got grandkids. If Ken Linseman and the Bruins spurred your first curse word, you’re a Generation X-er like me. And if you think Dallas, Ottawa or Carolina is a real rival, you still carry a backpack.

But the beauty of Afinogenov’s game is his speed blurs those definitions. He’d have fit perfectly on a line with Gilbert and Rico, although we’d have been forced to call him Marcel or Afinogenoux.

He’d have been a great fit alongside Pierre or Patty, too. In fact, more than once when he first came into the league — and pardon the stereotype — I caught myself calling him Alexander. And for Bruin-haters like me, that’s the ultimate compliment.

While the Hasek/Peca days were fun, they weren’t pedal-to-the-floor in my new Enzo fun.

Afinogenov is.

• Jonny Flynn, and not for the reasons you might think. Not the highlight plays, incredible first step or ability to break an opponent’s spirit.

Flynn is something special on the court, without question, but shows his true character as a young man through his actions off the court.

When Flynn got choked up trying to thank his parents on the day he signed his letter of intent to SU, you realized he was taking copious notes when every sports lesson was taught. Flynn’s got a swagger, but without malice.

Don’t miss him before he hits the Dome.

• Lee Evans. The Bills can’t seem to find a quarterback, but they keep restocking the wideout shelf. Eric Moulds was good, but Evans is even more fun because he rarely catches a case of the drops and knows how to dangle once he gets the ball.

And here’s to the Bills coaching staff for finally finding more ways to get him the ball on Sunday. Yes, Evans is a burner, but there’s more to the package. The bombs were great, but his catch in traffic prior to Peerless Price’s TD shows this guy can do it when it matters.

• A big weekend. Even without tonight’s Denver/KC game, there’s plenty to choose from. Sabres on Friday, SU at Canisius and Akron/NU on Saturday, and the Bills trying to climb back into the playoff race on Sunday.

• Finally, Leafs fans.

Huh?

That’s right, the blue, white and obnoxious ones make gamenight interesting, and they’re not afraid to part with a bundle of their funny money in the process.

Can gold games get more expensive? Course they can. Guys from Etobicoke and Brampton will continue to gobble up those overpriced tickets, allowing Buffalo to keep its payroll high.

Gobble, gobble, eh?

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266.

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