He may be taking his recovery one step at a time, but Maxim Afinogenov took a giant leap towards returning to the Buffalo Sabres lineup on Monday morning.
For the first time in 43 days, Afinogenov practiced with the team and without the protective splint he had been wearing.
"It feels a little better, and hopefully, it's going to improve every day," said Afinogenov, who missed the last 19 games after suffering a broken wrist against Edmonton on Feb. 17. "I need to just work on my wrist skills. I need to get exercise for my wrist with some dumbbells or something.
"It's my first practice and I don't want to try and do everything right away."
"Range of motion is the first," said head coach Lindy Ruff concerning the obstacles Afinogenov will need to hurdle. "Second is strength, which he is working through right now.
"His range of motion is pretty good. You can see already, in a controlled manor, that he's shooting the puck pretty well. "
Afinogenov skated vigorously while he was injured but the protective splint hindered all stickwork. Unlike Tim Connolly, who is battling to regain his conditioning and timing after suffering post-concussion symptoms all season, Afinogenov's legs and his biggest asset, his speed, wasn't affected by his injury.
The 27-year-old right winger has stated in the past of his desire to get a game or two of regular season experience in before the playoffs. It's something that Ruff agrees with completely.
"If they [Afinogenov or Connolly] are ready, we would like to see them get in," said Ruff of playing before the playoffs. "Tim's been working hard, and hopefully, if both of them are coming along, there will be an opportunity to get both of them in before the season ends."
"It's a big step for me to be practicing with the team already," Afinogenov said. "Right now, I don't know what is going to happen. I want to take it one step at a time and then we'll see."
Unlike Afinogenov, Connolly will not return to his past status once playing. The year away from the ice will leave him in a diminished role.
"He's slowly getting himself towards being in pretty good shape," said Ruff regarding the center from Syracuse, N.Y. "We're not going to get him where we want him, but we may be able to utilize him in a smaller role.
"I don't think we're going to get [Connolly] in good enough shape to play him in a regular line. He may be able to get nine to 10 minutes in the special teams type of time. And that might be effective enough, if that area helps our team, we'd love to use him in that sense."
But before either player can think about returning to game action, they will need to be cleared for contact, which could happen as early as mid-week.
"If things go well today, we're maybe looking at Wednesday as a possibility to accelerate that program a little bit," said Ruff.