Buffalo's notorious tenderloin district is located just a few
inches south of Dominik Hasek's belt buckle. The area, formally
known as Hasek's groin, was a veritable tourist attraction last
week, explored by a local TV medical reporter who did a
supper-hour piece on groins, a story guaranteed to up the ratings
and your dinner; by a Buffalo sports talk radio host who, in a
finding with likely Nobel Prize implications, claimed Hasek's
groin is directly attached to his cerebellum (i.e., the problem
is all in his head); and by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who did
their probing from the proximity of the Buffalo Sabres' crease.
Hasek's groin was the most public of private parts.
"You go to the gas station and it's, 'What's up with Dom?' as if
we really know more than we read," Sabres enforcer Rob Ray says.
"You go to the coffee shop and it's, 'How's the groin?' In a
small city like this, desperate for a winner, the people assume
he's going to be the reason if we win. Of course there was
pressure on him from inside the [dressing] room to play, just
like there was pressure on him throughout the city to play. Every
day guys in here were going up to him and asking how it was
feeling, how he was doing. When he came back [after missing the
first two games against Toronto], you saw how we raised our level
of play, our level of excitement. It was like, He's here, now
let's go get 'em."
Hasek, who is suffering from the lingering effects of a groin
strain that he sustained in February and (given the expectations
of his teammates) a slightly twisted arm, returned for Game 3 of
the Eastern Conference finals last Thursday. He helped Buffalo
beat Toronto 4-2 to put the Sabres up two games to one and
repeated his mastery two nights later in a 5-2 victory. The
latter game featured a second-period performance by Buffalo that
was as imposing as any 20 minutes in the 1999 playoffs, with an
offensive explosion that produced three goals in 2:35. If the
balky groin is holding up at all--"I don't even think about it
once the game starts," Hasek said after Game 4--it is indisputably
healthier than the Maple Leafs, who were eliminated in five games
after losing 4-2 to the Sabres on Monday night in Toronto.
All the attention directed at the tenderloin district did not
unnerve Hasek. In the opening moments of Game 3, he roamed from
the sanctity of his crease, handling the puck against Maple
Leafs forechecking, inviting if not initiating contact and
flopping to the ice with considerable brio when the Leafs nudged
him. "[Referee Kerry] Fraser came up to me and said, 'Don't
touch him. I know his act, and I'm not going to call anything,
but don't touch him,'" reported Toronto roughneck Tie Domi, who
most certainly touched Hasek in the dying seconds of that game,
skating into the crease and ramming him into the post. The bump
touched off some predictable shenanigans that featured Sabres
coach Lindy Ruff striding in the direction of the Toronto bench
and screaming, "You're one f------ dead man," although 36 hours
later Ruff said that the remark wasn't directed at Leafs coach
Pat Quinn or Domi, who was still in midscuffle on the ice. Ruff
and Domi were roommates on the 1990-91 New York Rangers when
Ruff was a fading defenseman and Domi a callow but irrepressible
fighter. "We used to call him Ruff at home and Lindy on the
road," Domi recalled with sly satisfaction. After being told of
Domi's remarks, Ruff countered by reciting this bit of doggerel
he dreamed up when Domi was a rookie: You touch me, you go me.
My name is Tie Domi.
"Most goalies have a breaking point," says Toronto center Steve
Sullivan, a 5'7", 155-pound irritant who routinely buzzed the
Sabres' crease and was penalized for interfering with Hasek in
Game 4. "Hasek's so acrobatic, so athletic. You can't be out of
your net, skating around, putting yourself in jeopardy if you're
seriously injured. I'm not saying he's faking--pro athletes know
their bodies--but we were just questioning how severe [his injury]
The wearisome inquiries about the tenderloin were related only
partially to the injury Hasek sustained in the regular season.
"I feel like I'm answering questions from two years ago," says
Ruff, who wasn't even in Buffalo during Hasek's first celebrated
playoff absence, during the 1997 postseason. In Game 3 of a
first-round series against the Ottawa Senators, Hasek abruptly
skated off the ice with an injury that was diagnosed as a mild
right knee sprain. Yet he missed the remainder of that round and
all of the following series, in which Buffalo was eliminated by
the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. His extended absence was
questioned by the Buffalo media, triggering a bizarre sequence
of events that included Hasek's physically confronting a Buffalo
newspaper columnist and a locker room press conference in which
Sabres players stood in a semicircle behind Hasek in a tableau
that reeked of stage-managed symbolism. Hasek's reputation as a
perfectionist who is disinclined to play at anything less than
peak shape has been an issue since.
Still, Hasek has earned some slack because he does things no one
else can, such as getting an assist on a shorthanded goal in
Game 4 while killing a penalty he committed. (He was whistled
for interference during a brief moment of wanderlust.) Of
course, his was only the second most surprising name on the
score sheet, behind Ray's. The tough forward tallied the winner
on a deflection from the slot that struck the ice and bounced
past Toronto defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev and netminder
Curtis Joseph; it was Ray's first goal of the season, his first
playoff goal in five years. He was so excited to score that
between periods he called his parents, John and Edith, in
Stirling, Ont. "If that stuff doesn't go on in the last 30
seconds of Game 3, I'm probably not in the lineup," said Ray,
who had dressed for only two of the Sabres' first 13 playoff
games. "So thank you, Toronto."
The Maple Leafs were indeed generous in Game 4, coughing up the
puck like an old tom with a fur ball, firing blind passes in the
middle of the ice, playing with neither poise nor a clue against
a team that was faster, grittier, better balanced (10 Sabres
scored in the first four games of the series) and markedly
superior on special teams. "They initiated every turnover, every
hit, every play," Toronto captain Mats Sundin said following that
match. "I don't think we had one player who outplayed one of
their guys. They beat the whole roster."
Sundin scored both Leafs goals, the first on a penalty shot in
which he picked the top corner over Hasek's glove. Ruff
suggested that if Hasek had been 100%--or if the score hadn't
been 5-0 at the time--he would have been on his knees in the
butterfly position, giving Sundin what he gave Team Canada in
the 1998 Olympic semifinal shootout: nothing. When Ruff's theory
was advanced, Hasek just smiled, deciding not to go there. He
was the only one keeping away from the tenderloin.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL WIPPERT INSULT TO INJURY Showing no ill effects from his strained muscle, Hasek made 31 saves in a 5-2 win in Game 4.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL WIPPERT STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT Domi (right) and the Leafs tried everything to get under the skin of Richard Smehlik and Buffalo.