The Buffalo Sabres will go only as far this spring as goaltender
Dominik Hasek will take them, which on a sun-dappled morning in
Ottawa last week was maybe a mile. Instead of the traditional
game-day skate early in the day of the first-round series opener
against the Senators, the Sabres took a stroll along the Rideau
Canal. A morning constitutional clears the mind and sharpens the
powers of observation--"That's where Mary Poppins crashed," said
winger Dixon Ward, noting an umbrella sticking out of the muddy
canal--but mostly it's an exercise in New Age team bonding. They
trudged en masse, Hasek in the lead, coaches in the rear, until
the goalie declared, "O.K., enough." The Sabres, as if on
command, turned back.
Shortly thereafter Hasek started turning back the befuddled
Senators as underdog Buffalo jumped to a 3-0 series lead over a
team suddenly searching for an exit. In a display of exceptional
goaltending that is routine for Hasek, he stopped 116 of 119
shots. Ottawa's three goals came on the power play, although
none was scored by Senators star center Alexei Yashin, who
couldn't find much room to maneuver after Sabres captain Michael
Peca climbed inside his jersey and into his head. A dazed
Yashin, held without a point in the three games by a center who
is four inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter, walked out of
Marine Midland Arena after a 3-0 defeat on Sunday looking like a
man on his way to an audit.
Buffalo is not as easy to read as the crestfallen Yashin. Which
team is it: the one that tied for the fewest losses in the first
half of the season or the one that stumbled from first to
seventh in the Eastern Conference after that? Are they the
halting Sabres who stole a 2-1 win against Ottawa in Game 1,
despite being outshot 41-15? Or are they the middling team that
survived 3-2 in double overtime in Game 2? Or are they the
confident team that appeared for Game 3, in which Peca set up an
early goal and Hasek got his fourth career playoff shutout by
stopping 31 shots? Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier admits
bewilderment at his club's inconsistencies. "We are unorthodox,"
Regier says. "A lot like Dom."
The Dominator does have an inimitable style, replete with
flailing arms and fumbled goal sticks, but it's rooted in the
solid goaltending principles of reading the play and
anticipating the shot. In the first three games Hasek lost his
stick perhaps 15 times and made a few saves while flat on his
back. The only new wrinkle seemed to come on a point-blank shot
by forward Vaclav Prospal in Game 1 when, stickless, Hasek
stopped the puck while crouched inside the net in a lotus
position, looking less like a goalie than a meditating guru. For
a moment Hasek was the Ommm-inator.
Although the conventional wisdom is that Pittsburgh Penguins
right wing Jaromir Jagr will win the Hart Trophy as the league's
MVP this season, the Buffalo goalie had better statistics in
1998-99 (a 1.87 goals-against average and a league-leading .937
save percentage) than he did in winning the Hart the two
previous seasons. Hasek's only slump came after Christmas, when
he allowed 14 goals in 81 shots over three games, which
coincided with a visit from the Czech Republic by his parents,
Jan and Marie, who had never seen him play as a Sabre. Son, are
you sure you're an NHL star?
More worrisome than parental pressure was a groin injury that
forced him to miss 12 games from late February to late March.
Tennis star Petr Korda, a fellow Czech, told Hasek about a
specialist in Munich, Ulrike Muschaweck, who Korda claimed had
saved his career. In a whirlwind trip endorsed by Sabres
management, Hasek flew to Munich, saw the doctor, learned for
the first time that he had a small hernia and was back in net
three days later. "It gave me peace of mind," says Hasek, who
still ices the injury after each game. "I was glad to see
somebody who told me exactly what was wrong."
In his 10 regular-season starts after the consultation, Hasek
had a dizzying .943 save percentage, a 1.45 goals-against
average and a smile. "Dom's pretty easy to read," Peca says.
"You look at his face, check his body language. He'd been pretty
discouraged, but when he came back he was more upbeat, energetic."
Peca, who had a goal and three assists against Ottawa in the
first three games, was in fine form himself and didn't look as
gaunt as he usually does. Despite his sunken cheeks, Peca's
weight hardly fluctuates from 180 pounds, although as a
precaution against fatigue this spring he has turned to drink.
After Game 1, Peca sat at his locker room stall with two
bananas, a bottle of water, a quart of orange sport drink and a
chaser of bubblegum-flavored Pedialyte, an electrolyte
replacement fluid favored by pediatricians, probably because
they don't drink it themselves. "This stuff," Peca says, "tastes
"Peca's bound and determined to lead us," says his linemate
Ward, "especially after last season." The Sabres reached the
'97-98 conference finals, but their captain was hardly a
commanding presence. He missed the first two matches against the
Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 because of a sprained left knee,
reinjured the knee in the second round against the Montreal
Canadiens and was sweating out his availability for his
impending nuptials. Failing to take into account the NHL's
extended schedule because of the 1998 Olympic break, he and his
then fiancee, Kristin, had set a wedding date of June 20, the
same day, it turned out, as a possible Game 6 of the Stanley Cup
finals. As Buffalo skipped through the early rounds, locker room
jibes about china patterns and Stanley Cup stemware grew louder.
Peca was clearly agitated at the time, but he refused to comment
on the matter.
"Instead of keeping his mouth shut," says Ward, "he should have
said, 'I'll cancel the wedding, I'll be happy to be married in
Peca, who has evolved from a defensive specialist into a 27-goal
scorer, is handling everything impeccably now. With 55 seconds
left in Game 1 and Ottawa pressing for the tying goal with six
attackers, Peca cleanly beat Radek Bonk on the face-off in the
circle to Hasek's left. Then, with fewer than 20 seconds
remaining and Peca preparing for another face-off at the same
dot, Ottawa coach Jacques Martin switched to Bruce Gardiner.
Even if Gardiner had won the draw--he didn't--Ottawa would have
had a fourth-liner with stone hands on the ice at a critical
moment. "Peca," says coach Lindy Ruff, "dictated the game."
The lesson is that talent, unless it's mixed with grit and
goaltending, won't take you the first mile in the playoff
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL WIPPERT BETTER THAN EVER Hasek, who had the top statistical season of his career, stopped 116 of 119 shots in three games against Ottawa.