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Penguins Hasek dominating again, leadership inspiring Sabres

Friday, May 04, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Forget that the Buffalo Sabres' coaching staff has picked the Penguins' left-wing lock system. Or that the forwards finally have rediscovered their shooting touch. Or that the defensemen are taking brash risks to join the attack.

Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek has stopped 34 of the 37 shots he has faced in the past two games as Buffalo has rallied from a two-game deficit pull even with the Penguins. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

It's all Dominik Hasek.

With the Sabres, it always is.

He is the source, the inspiration for their confidence, cockiness and coolness in taking the past two games of this second-round Stanley Cup playoff series to knot it at 2-2.

"We know what we have in Dominik. We know he's going to go out and make some big saves," center Curtis Brown said. "This game is all about momentum, and if you can get a big save that's maybe going to switch the momentum to your side, you should try to do something with it. That's how we play."

"When Dominik's playing the way he is back there, that gives everybody a good feeling that they can make some plays," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "You know you can take a chance or two, and it's not going to end up in your net."

Hasek has stopped 75 of 83 shots in this series for a .904 save percentage, not the greatest numbers for a goaltender some rank among the best in NHL history. But his importance to the Sabres extends far beyond statistics, for he is their unquestioned leader, their most vocal member.

When his defensemen miss an assignment, he is in their faces during the next stoppage.

"I pay a lot of attention to my defense and to everybody," Hasek said. "I see the whole ice, from their zone to ours. I want my teammates to be perfect in this, to do exactly what they're supposed to do and not leave even an inch of the ice open."

 
 
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He also isn't shy to share advice to teammates when they perform poorly on offense, straying well off the beaten path for a goaltender.

This is why, after the Sabres scored only one goal in the series' first two games, he was more exasperated with the forwards' lack of production than having lost both games.

"When I see that, I feel terrible," Hasek said. "I thought we were playing really well, but we just couldn't score. I wasn't busy at all, and I felt like I couldn't do anything to help. I wanted to go and shoot the puck."

Hasek's leadership qualities are particularly important to this group of Sabres, whose captain, center Michael Peca, has sat out all year because of a contract dispute. When Coach Lindy Ruff initiated a move to stitch the "C" on another player's sweater a couple of months ago, the rest balked out of respect for Peca.

It probably didn't matter, anyway. Although NHL rules prohibit a goaltender from being captain, it's clear to all who steers the Sabres' ship.

"When you've got a player like Dominik, we just follow his lead," center Chris Gratton said. "Everybody knows what he's accomplished in this sport and how great he is, and we all feed off that. He's got that energy about him."

Hasek stumbled through the first two games of this series, allowing five goals, including no fewer than three of dubious pedigree. He didn't appear to be in control, clumsily losing the handle on easy shots to allow dangerous rebounds and frequently failing to take an aggressive stance in cutting down angles.

All that changed in the first period of Game 3 Monday. The Penguins dominated the opening 20 minutes and clanged two shots off the pipe behind Hasek, but he also recorded several dazzling saves. Kevin Stevens scored on a deflection early in the second period, but the Penguins didn't beat him again and fell, 4-1.

The Dominator was back.

In Buffalo's 5-2 victory in Game 4 Wednesday, Hasek allowed a first-period Martin Straka slap shot from center point to whistle by him despite having a clear view of it. But it proved to be his lone gaffe. A Janne Laukkanen shot beat him in the second period only because of a solid screen set by Mario Lemieux, and no more went in after that.

Hasek's shining moment came at 8:07 of the third period, when Straka was awarded a penalty shot.

The Sabres' bench never flinched.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm glad Dominik Hasek is my goalie,' I really was," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "He's got to be one of the best ever, one on one. We had a lot of confidence in him, and he showed us why."

Hasek daringly darted out of his net as Straka skated in, then calmly slid backward and stacked his leg pads when Straka tried to deke him on the backhand.

This, of course, was no big deal for a guy who stopped five consecutive shootout attempts by some of the world's best snipers - Theoren Fleury, Raymond Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan - when the Czech Republic beat Canada in the semifinals of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

"I've been through it many times," Hasek said. "Sure, I was a bit nervous. But I tried to stay calm, not do too much and wait for what the player is going to do."

Fiery as Hasek has been on the ice in this series, that's how cool he has been off it.

During each of the past two game-day skates at Mellon Arena, he has donned a regular skater's equipment and tried shooting rows of pucks past backup goaltender Martin Biron. Without much success, it should be noted, and invariably drawing giggles from others on the rink.

"I skated with the forwards before Game 3," Hasek said. "We won the game, so I didn't change anything. It seems like it works."

When Hasek is on top of his game and feeling confident, everything seems to work for Buffalo.

Just ask his teammates. For the better part of a week, they fretted over how to beat Penguins goaltender Johan Hedberg, who had been the buzz of the series in its early stages. But Hasek never lost his poise, maintaining after each loss that it was only a matter of time before his team put it all together. And, most important, he backed it up with strong play.

Now, the Sabres don't seem so worried.

"Give Hedberg credit. He's played great, and it's still 2-2," Woolley said. "But I sure think we have the better goalie. In fact, I know we have the better goalie."

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