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INSIDE THE NHL
Dominik Hasek says the Sabres are playing well around him (which
they are) and that he's getting lucky bounces (which he is), but
that doesn't explain his sudden and gaudy string of goose eggs
in a season in which, until last month, he had been no blanking
good. "He turned it around when he was finally able to ignore
the boos and concentrate on the puck," says general manager
After flopping in his first 20 games of 1997-98 (he had an unsightly 3.35 goals-against average and an .895 save percentage after last season's 2.27 GAA and .930 save percentage), the world's best goalie is back. Hasek had six shutouts in December, which tied an NHL single-month record and was one more than he had last season, when he was the league's MVP. Improbably, the run came after Buffalo's faithful had turned on him for his poor start and in lingering fury over his feud with Ted Nolan, which had led to the departure of the popular coach, who declined the team's underwhelming one-year extension after his contract ran out last season. For a man who routinely throws himself facefirst into hurtling pucks, Hasek proved to have a fragile psyche. "I had never been booed," he says. "It was hard for me to play some nights."
The turning point came on Nov. 28, the night Rangers center Pat LaFontaine, the former Sabres star, made his return to Buffalo. LaFontaine was lauded loudly by an emotional sellout crowd, which in turn jeered the struggling home team. Hasek allowed three even-strength goals in a 3-3 tie, and afterward fans were waiting outside Marine Midland Arena to scream abuse at him as he stepped into the cold night. It was then that Hasek knew he had to block out da noise to get outta his funk. "Dom changed after that night," says Regier. "He realized he couldn't listen to what people said, and he couldn't control the crowd. He could only control the game. He became totally focused."
Hasek's improvement began on Dec. 1, when he held the Flyers to one goal, and it continued throughout the month. Then, with a chance to make history on New Year's Eve, Hasek stopped 36 shots in a 3-0 shutout over the Senators.
That same day, Sabres minority owner John Rigas signed an agreement that should enable him to take a controlling interest in the team by next month. Rigas is a Nolan supporter and has done nothing to quell rumors that with Buffalo in last place in the Northeast Division at week's end, he might bring Nolan back.
That won't be easy to do with Hasekstill anti-Nolan and the last player Rigas needs to alienateperforming phenomenally. By last Friday the Sabres had gone 7-7-2 since the LaFontaine game, and as Hasek stopped pucks with all parts of his anatomy in a 2-2 tie against the Avalanche, the Buffalo crowd roared for him time after time. Hasek's revival could be saving the job of Lindy Ruff, the coach he wants to play for.
Issue date: January 12, 1998
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