THE DOMINATOR IS BACK
Dominik Hasek says the Sabres are playing well around him (which
they are) and that he's getting lucky bounces (which he is), but
that doesn't explain his sudden and gaudy string of goose eggs
in a season in which, until last month, he had been no blanking
good. "He turned it around when he was finally able to ignore
the boos and concentrate on the puck," says general manager
After flopping in his first 20 games of 1997-98 (he had an
unsightly 3.35 goals-against average and an .895 save percentage
after last season's 2.27 GAA and .930 save percentage), the
world's best goalie is back. Hasek had six shutouts in December,
which tied an NHL single-month record and was one more than he
had last season, when he was the league's MVP. Improbably, the
run came after Buffalo's faithful had turned on him for his poor
start and in lingering fury over his feud with Ted Nolan, which
had led to the departure of the popular coach, who declined the
team's underwhelming one-year extension after his contract ran
out last season. For a man who routinely throws himself
facefirst into hurtling pucks, Hasek proved to have a fragile
psyche. "I had never been booed," he says. "It was hard for me
to play some nights."
The turning point came on Nov. 28, the night Rangers center Pat
LaFontaine, the former Sabres star, made his return to Buffalo.
LaFontaine was lauded loudly by an emotional sellout crowd,
which in turn jeered the struggling home team. Hasek allowed
three even-strength goals in a 3-3 tie, and afterward fans were
waiting outside Marine Midland Arena to scream abuse at him as
he stepped into the cold night. It was then that Hasek knew he
had to block out da noise to get outta his funk. "Dom changed
after that night," says Regier. "He realized he couldn't listen
to what people said, and he couldn't control the crowd. He could
only control the game. He became totally focused."
Hasek's improvement began on Dec. 1, when he held the Flyers to
one goal, and it continued throughout the month. Then, with a
chance to make history on New Year's Eve, Hasek stopped 36 shots
in a 3-0 shutout over the Senators.
That same day, Sabres minority owner John Rigas signed an
agreement that should enable him to take a controlling interest
in the team by next month. Rigas is a Nolan supporter and has
done nothing to quell rumors that with Buffalo in last place in
the Northeast Division at week's end, he might bring Nolan back.
That won't be easy to do with Hasek--still anti-Nolan and the
last player Rigas needs to alienate--performing phenomenally. By
last Friday the Sabres had gone 7-7-2 since the LaFontaine game,
and as Hasek stopped pucks with all parts of his anatomy in a
2-2 tie against the Avalanche, the Buffalo crowd roared for him
time after time. Hasek's revival could be saving the job of
Lindy Ruff, the coach he wants to play for.
IT'S TIME TO ACT
Now that Blues star right wing Brett Hull has joined the list of
marquee players who have been sidelined by slashes; now that a
pair of Western Conference coaches have, according to team
sources, phoned commissioner Gary Bettman to bemoan the
widespread thwacking; and now that Maple Leafs coach Mike Murphy
says flatly, "Slashing is way up," it's time for the league to
finally do something.
"It's frustrating," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau,
whose team lost top center Pierre Turgeon for seven weeks after
his right arm was broken on a hack by the Stars' Guy Carbonneau
in October and now will be without Hull for a similar period
because of the broken bone in his left hand that he suffered
when slashed by the Mighty Ducks' Tomas Sandstrom on Dec. 27.
"But do we want to penalize every slash?"
Maybe not every slash, but a lot more than referees are calling
now, because its frequency is diminishing the game. "Slashing
has become a routine defensive tactic," says Brian Burke, the
NHL's director of hockey operations. "We allow some of it."
Another defensive tactic--and one that's dangerous, to boot--is
the last thing the league needs. Scoring is down a half a goal
per game from last season's 17-year low of 5.83 per match, and
reducing slashing would help open up the game. The longstanding
argument that slashing is an ingrained part of hockey is at best
irrelevant and at worst silly. In an era when players wear short
gloves and wield aluminum sticks, slashing is more dangerous
than ever. In addition to Hull and Turgeon, Canadiens wing Brian
Savage and Bruins center Joe Thornton have missed substantial
playing time this season because of slashing-related injuries.
NHL rules mandate a penalty for any slash that "impedes the
progress of an opponent." Every slash impedes. It's time to
enforce the rules.
AT LEAST HE DOESN'T SNORE
At various times during his nocturnal wanderings, Senators
winger Shawn McEachern has knocked over a pile of dishes, broken
his ribs by falling and bloodied his forehead on a shelf. He's a
sleepwalker. "Usually I wake up somewhere in my room, pee and go
back to sleep," he says. "I've also ended up in the hotel
McEachern roams most often when he's nervous. "Before my
daughter, Alison, was born [in June '96], I was sleepwalking
every night," says the 28-year-old McEachern.
Rookie defenseman Chris Phillips, who has roomed with McEachern
this season, has been awakened more than once by McEachern's
midnight meandering. "He doesn't look like a zombie," Phillips
says. "His eyes are open, and he can hear. I'll say, 'Mac, go
back to bed.' And he goes back to bed."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT A newly confident Hasek had six blanks last month, tying a record. [Dominik Hasek in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [Kirk Miller]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Jamie Langenbrunner]
BUST AND BARGAIN
C Kirk Muller
'97-98 salary: $1.7 million
Five-time 30-goal scorer had only two through Sunday; suspended
for two games last month for stick-swinging.
C Jamie Langenbrunner
'97-98 salary: $300,000
With 17 goals at week's end he had already surpassed last
season's total; he's a swell penalty killer too.