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Penguins Iceberg: Nothing causes Hedberg to lose his cool, even facing Buffalo's Hasek

Today: Game 1 against Buffalo Sabres, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

For all the world, it looked as if Johan Hedberg had no chance. His body was contorted awkwardly amid a maze of traffic to the left of his goal crease, and the Washington Capitals' Jeff Halpern had the puck on his stick, poised for an easy flick into the vacated side.

Some goaltenders quit on the play.

Bill Pliske, Post-Gazette photo illustration

Some get frustrated and take a whack at those interfering with them.

And some remain cool enough to think a save is still possible.

Hedberg spun away from the pack and dived in Halpern's direction, his head striking the ice with such force that his bright blue "Moose" mask was knocked off. And as he lay flat and sprawled, all he managed to get between the shooter and the target was his right arm.

That was enough. His desperation fall was timed just right so that Halpern's backhander grazed off his elbow and skittered wide of the net.

The 17,148 fans in attendance at Mellon Arena Monday night stood and roared, growing increasingly louder as replay after replay from several different angles was shown on the video scoreboard.

And after the Penguins went on to eliminate the Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Hedberg couldn't help but grin.

"I took a page out of Dominik Hasek's book, I guess."

Hasek? He's next.

In Buffalo, Hasek is an icon. He is the Dominator, the most decorated goaltender of his generation. The man who four years ago became the first at his position to be named the NHL's most valuable player since 1962. The man who stunned the world by leading the Czech Republic to Olympic gold at Nagano. The man who finished behind only Mario Lemieux in one international panel's voting for Hockey Player of the Decade in the 1990s.

 
 
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The man who has won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender one time for each of the five weeks Hedberg has played at this level.

Once Hasek knew he would face Hedberg and the Penguins in the second round, he was asked what he knew about his counterpart.

"Nothing. I don't even know ... is he Swedish or American?"

Swedish, Hasek was informed.

"I've seen him in his interviews. He speaks so well in English that I wasn't sure if he was Swedish. I know nothing about him. I saw him play in a game once in Pittsburgh against Marty. I saw him on TV in the playoffs a couple of times."

Hasek's firsthand glimpse came March 27 at Mellon Arena, when he was rested in favor of Martin Biron. The Penguins won, 4-1, and Hedberg made 18 saves, but apparently not enough of an impression to draw a definitive scouting report from Hasek.

"He's a small guy. He's not like Olaf Kolzig, who covers so much of the net. He's pretty fast. His disadvantage could be that he's not as big. Maybe he doesn't cover so much space. I don't know. That's just maybe."

Hedberg, 5 feet 11, has no pretenses that he ranks with Hasek, 6 feet 2. Not in stature and certainly not in accomplishments.

"It's going to be another huge challenge, not only for me but also the whole team," Hedberg said. "He's an unbelievable goaltender who's stoned a lot of teams over the years. I've seen him play on the national team, I've seen him play on TV, and he's an unbelievable goaltender."

That's not to suggest, of course, that Hedberg plans to skate across the rink and ask Hasek for his autograph.

"He's not my hero at all," Hedberg said, his face stoic. "I mean, before the game, he's a great goaltender. But when the puck drops, he's just another guy on the ice."

Hedberg's cool in these playoffs has begun off the ice.

He reads the newspapers, surfs the Web and tunes in to "SportsCenter," so he knows he's all the rage in the hockey world. He hears his name mentioned in the same breath with legends such as Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, others who shined as rookies in their first Stanley Cup playoffs. And he doesn't flinch.

To the amazement of his teammates, he will stand and chat with the media for more than a half-hour on the morning of game days, stunning considering it's a rarity for NHL goaltenders to speak at all on the day they play. He grants just about every interview request that comes his way, large or small, sharing his thoughts with everyone from ESPN to Sports Illustrated to radio stations less powerful than a light bulb.

The questions are all pretty much the same. Everyone wants to know how a 27-year-old journeyman feels about starring in the NHL a month removed from toiling for the Manitoba Moose. And he answers each time as if it's the first time he has been asked.

"Are all my answers starting to be the same?" he asked with a wink after a session yesterday. "I hope not. I know everyone wants to know."

If this is Hedberg's Andy Warhol time, he's going to milk the most from his 15 minutes.

"I really do enjoy it. It's great. But at the same time, you've got to try to stay emotionally even. Don't get too high or too low. Especially in the playoffs, you can't afford to be going up or down all the time. You've got to be focused for the next shot, for the next game."

Focus is hardly a problem for Hedberg, especially in the hour or two leading up to faceoff. There are no microphones or cameras, no phone calls, no distractions of any kind.

Hedberg will sit at his locker stall, head down, eyes open, gazing at the floor. It reminds some of his teammates of Ron Tugnutt, who filled this goaltender-makes-good role last spring.

"It's a lot like Tugger," defenseman Bob Boughner said. "It seems like forever that he's there. I have no idea what he's thinking about. He just zones out."

Not entirely, Hedberg will tell you.

"Maybe I don't have too much to say, so I just try to stay in my own world a little bit. But if someone wants to talk to me, that's fine. I'm not the kind of guy who would get mad or anything. I'm still aware of what's going on around me."

He has employed the routine consistently throughout his career. Whether he was riding buses for the Baton Rouge Kingfish or traveling across Europe with his Leksand club in Sweden, he has never allowed that quiet time to waver.

"When I get close to the game, I'm trying to keep everything the same, the same things I've been doing in hockey my whole life. That can't change. You build up a routine, things that make you feel comfortable, even if you're in situations that are new for you. Right now, everything's new, obviously, but it's all what you make of it."

When the puck drops, Hedberg's mouth opens again, and the fire shows.

He is vocal with his defensemen, barking out instructions and letting them know of incoming forecheckers. He is calculated but daring in his gambles to leave the crease and play the puck. And he is unafraid to dash a stride or two forward to take away a shooter's angle.

"His whole game, for a guy who hasn't played in the NHL before, his whole preparation for the game, you can tell he knows what he's doing," Lemieux said. "I like the way he's playing. He's very aggressive. He doesn't sit back."

For the most part, though, Hedberg's on-ice work is more about what he doesn't do than what he does.

A typical minor-league call-up might turn in an acrobatic 50-save shutout in his first night, perhaps on adrenaline alone. But those who study the game know immediately whether that player belongs or not, regardless of numbers.

They'll know by how he controls his rebounds. By how he handles the puck. By how square he stays to the shooter. By how he holds his ground.

Not every save has to be a Hasek-style, Slinky-for-a-spine thriller.

"That's always been a big part of my game, to be patient and just read the play," Hedberg said. "I try to be in control, to react to the shooter. I don't want to be the first one to move."

The Capitals found that out the hard way.

They beat him with just 10 of their 161 shots. And after nearly every game, they would complain that they didn't shoot well enough, that they made it too easy on him by nailing him in his Penguins logo time and again.

There was merit to that complaint, to be sure. But Hedberg also had a little to do with that.

"That's the best credit I can get, I think," he said. "When I hear people saying things like that, it gives me confidence. If they're shooting the puck in my chest, that's where I want it. Either they're very bad at putting the puck past me or I'm in the right position. I don't mind either way."

By the time the round was done, Hedberg had gained more than his share of respect.

From his opponents ...

"He played solid all series long," Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "For a first-timer, he really had a cool head. He was rock solid for them. I think he really showed a lot of people that he belongs."

And from his boss ...

"This is not a fluke," Lemieux said. "He's really playing that well."

Now, it all seems rather casual for Hedberg.

Beat Hasek?

Sure, why not?

It's not as if he's feeling any heat to succeed.

"The only pressure comes from me," Hedberg said. "I know what I can do, and I just want to do as well as I know I can. I don't think anyone can put more pressure on me than I put on myself."

Comparing Hedberg to Hasek based on their careers is absurd, of course. But do it in the only quantifiable way possible, by matching their first-round performances this spring, and Hedberg holds his own.

Hedberg was 4-2 against the Capitals, with a 1.60 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. Hasek was 4-2 in eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers, with a 2.05 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

"He's already won a playoff series. He played well in the first round," Hasek said. "Experience, it can go both ways. I'm not the type of person who relies too much on experience. Experience is a good thing, but not the most important."

Hedberg, naturally, is quick to agree.

"I just have to come out and play my game."

Part of Hedberg's game is to match himself against his counterpart.

Just about every NHL goaltender will tell you his enemy is the shooter, not the other goaltender. Not Hedberg. To his mind, it's a singular battle between the men wearing the masks.

"That's the way I've always looked at it," he said. "You have a little game within the game, goaltender vs. goaltender. If he makes the big save, that keeps me on top of my game. Then, it's my turn, my chance."

Goaltender vs. goaltender.

Hasek vs. Hedberg.

The Dominator vs. The Moose.

If the story weren't reality, if it weren't about to turn the page to the second chapter tonight, it would be too preposterous to qualify as a fable.

"This is a dream for every hockey player in the world, not just for me," Hedberg said. "And I know that. I know the whole thing is just so unbelievable. Growing up as kids in Europe, we have posters of NHL players on our walls. Now, I've got the chance to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's a great thrill."

Funny, but you'd never know it.

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