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Stop Gap With Dominik Hasek out, wily Buffalo turned to a backup goalie and jumped ahead of Toronto in the East finals

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was coming to the end of his
postmeal pep talk last Saturday night when he dropped an
oh-by-the-way on his team, a matter-of-fact announcement of who
would be playing goal the next day in Game 1 of the Eastern
Conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rather than
the injured Dominik Hasek, the best goalie in the world and a
man with a credit-card commercial, the Sabres would start Dwayne
Roloson, the best goalie ever to come out of the University of
Massachusetts-Lowell and a man who might need three forms of
identification to cash a check. Ruff didn't quite phrase it that
way. He simply said, "Rollie's in," and then he reminded his
team of Roloson's 5-4-2 record since late February, when Hasek
suffered the groin injury that was still plaguing him. Ruff
explained to his players that if they could finish one game over
.500 in their series against Toronto, they would reach the
Stanley Cup finals. "I told the team this was their time for
recognition," Ruff says. "I talked about the opportunity for
other people to shine."

Including this spring's conference semifinals, Buffalo has won
more playoff series the last three years (five, one more than
the Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars) than any other team
except the two-time Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Yet the
Sabres remain as anonymous as participants in any 12-step
program. They are overshadowed by Hasek's brilliance. The team
is seductive in its simplicity--pugnacious, resilient,
moderately quick and blessed with one of hockey's most clever
two-way players in 25-year-old center Michael Peca--but the
Sabres remain the Dominator and the Dominoes. Their only other
name player is Satan. In a just world, forward Miroslav Satan
would be known for scoring 40 goals this season. Instead, he is
cursed by a spelling that is catnip to sports talk-radio shows.
When he does interviews on those shows, Satan, a Slovakian,
always politely corrects the host: "In my country it's
pronounced Sha-TAN."

"Nobody here has the kind of ego that really demands the
attention," says Buffalo forward Rob Ray. "Even Dom. He's given
this team an identity, but he just likes being around the game,
being around the guys, and he avoids the spotlight when he can."

On Sunday, missing Hasek and Satan, who has been sidelined since
Game 3 of the conference quarterfinals with a bruised right
foot, the Sabres found another way to win. Buffalo, the team
with the largest increase in goals per game from the regular
season (2.52) to the playoffs (3.09), beat the Maple Leafs 5-4
in the Air Canada Centre in an uneven but thrilling game.
Roloson, 29, whose previous playoff experience consisted of 19
minutes, outplayed his Toronto counterpart, a jittery Curtis
Joseph, and the Sabres got goals from unlikely contributors such
as forward Geoff Sanderson, who had last scored on April 3, and
forward Stu Barnes, who had been mired in a 31-game goal drought.

Barnes's first goal since coming to Buffalo in a deal on March
11 upstaged two goals and an assist by Leafs captain Mats
Sundin, one of those glossy playoff performances that might have
gone down in Toronto lore if the Sabres hadn't forced everybody
to read the fine print. If you looked closely at the stat sheet
you noticed that Sundin was -1. During five-on-five action
Sundin's line was outplayed and outscored (two goals to one) by
the checking combination of Peca, Dixon Ward and Vaclav Varada.

"They're as good as any playoff line," Ruff says of that trio.
"They aren't quite as good in the regular season because they
tend to run out of gas. You can't expect them to play 22, 24
minutes a game and play three games in four nights doing what
they do against all the big lines. But in the playoffs, going
every other night, not practicing hard on the off days, it makes
a difference."

When he took over as Buffalo's coach two years ago, Ruff had
some elements of a checking line in place, but he was lacking a
winger who could hang on to the puck down low and who could not
only administer a beating but also withstand one. Then, in March
1998, the Sabres decided that the fiery 23-year-old Varada, who
had been playing for their minor league affiliate in Rochester,
N.Y., might be the perfect complement to the Selke
Trophy-winning Peca and Ward. Varada is an infuriating presence
who doesn't stand for much, including protocol. In midseason he
offered the blunt assessment that Wayne Gretzky was no problem
to check, a solecism even if it contained a kernel of truth. The
New York Rangers, Gretzky's team, frothed in rage.

Of course, the Peca-Ward-Varada line lives to irritate. Peca and
friends handled Ottawa Senators star center Alexei Yashin so
impressively in a first-round sweep that the series degenerated
into a referendum on Yashin's leadership. In Round 2 the line
dominated Boston's Jason Allison so thoroughly that Bruins
president Harry Sinden publicly lambasted his No. 1 center after
Buffalo won that series in six games. Peca is master of
defensive positioning who has the speed to find openings on
offense. He works well with the 30-year-old Ward, who is slower
but has sweet hands and an accurate shot. Ward, in fact, clanged
in a goal off a post from 55 feet on Sunday.

"I hope people don't find out about us," Ward says. "With
recognition comes expectations. That's not something we want in
this room. People keep saying we're a one-man team, and that's
fine. We'll just keep on playing, having a little fun."

The one man, Hasek, headed back to Buffalo on Sunday for an MRI
to reassess his injury, which had been diagnosed by a specialist
in Munich in late March as a slight hernia. Last Saturday,
Sabres owner John Rigas dispatched his private plane from
Coudersport, Pa., to East Lansing, Mich., to fetch Dr. Lynn
Brumm, a specialist from Michigan State, to minister to the
goalie. (Try that with your HMO.)

Until Hasek can play, Buffalo will entrust its netminding to the
latest inductee of the UMass-Lowell Hall of Fame, a journeyman
who will be measured against alltime greats not by dizzying save
percentages or by Q ratings but by his record. After Game 1,
Roloson admitted he was nervous facing the NHL's highest-scoring
team, saying he was concerned about "the Leafs' six scoring
lines and 20 defensemen." No matter. If Roloson is one better
than .500, the Sabres may have blown their cover for good.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA DOMINIK WHO? Roloson made 28 saves, including this one on Toronto's Yanic Perreault, in a 5-4 win in Game 1 on Sunday.