Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Game 3 of the Central Division Finals showed just how much Egor Afanasyev can take over a game.

The 23-year-old forward is mobile enough to haul a 6-foot-4, 209-pound frame to open areas of the ice. He’s smart, anticipating and seeing the ice well. He also possesses a deceptive shot, one that he is able to launch in a split-second motion with a slight snap of the wrists. And he can dish the puck well enough to keep opposing defenders guessing.

That night last week against Grand Rapids, the Griffins looked powerless to stop Afanasyev, who scored all three Milwaukee Admirals goals in a 3-2 overtime win.

On his first goal, Afanasyev created sufficient movement on his shot from just above the high slot to generate a rebound, then immediately crashed the net and pinpointed a far-side shot that eluded goaltender Sebastian Cossa.

On his second goal, he quietly gained enough separation from defenders, drifting away to slip into the right circle. When Joakim Kemell’s left-circle blast squibbed out to Afanasyev, he immediately settled down the puck and in one motion whipped another far-side shot past Cossa.

Then in overtime, he hung back on an entry into the offensive zone, took a drop pass from Kemell along the right boards and cut to just above the right circle before snapping home the winning goal.

Three different approaches, three different goals.

“I think it’s a big factor in playoffs to be able to play under pressure,” Afanasyev stated. “I was always working hard on my craft, and finally that work showed.”

Afanasyev burned the Griffins for five goals in the five-game series, helping to send the Admirals to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

It’s easy to see the raw potential that the Nashville Predators spotted when they made Afanasyev a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The Tver, Russia, native came to North America as a 15-year-old to play in the Detroit area for the Little Caesars youth program. From there he spent two seasons in the United States Hockey League with Muskegon and then moved on to Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League for a season in 2019. After a pandemic-season detour back to Russia, he debuted with the Admirals in 2021-22.

Afanasyev has earned head coach Karl Taylor’s trust enough to be used in all situations, and his five shorthanded goals tied him for the AHL regular-season lead.

“He’s really growing into a more mature game for us,” Taylor explained. “He’s in better shape than he’s ever been. His first year was learning. His second year, he became a really good defensive player for us, and then this year he’s combined it all. He’s scoring more. He’s producing more, but he is still playing a good defensive role for us. I think he’s got a more complete game today, and he’s going on the right path.

“What is going to be the difference maker that’s going to make you a full-time NHL’er so you can really make a stand for yourself?” Taylor continued. “That’s something for him to figure out. Same with the other 25 guys we have on our roster. How are you going to separate so that people go, ‘I’ve got to have this player.’”

This year Afanasyev led the Admirals with 27 goals and 54 points in 56 games, and Nashville has seen enough promise to call him up to play in 19 games the past two seasons.

“We need him to score for us to have success,” Taylor quipped. “That’s no secret. You can share that with whoever you want.”

Milwaukee will be looking to gain a split of the first two games of the conference finals tonight at Coachella Valley; the Firebirds took a 2-1 decision in Game 1 on Wednesday. The Admirals have already fought off elimination four times already this postseason, including coming back from 0-2 down against Texas in the division semifinals.

“We’ve got a lot more to prove,” Afanasyev said, “and everybody’s ready.”


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