If you know that a Zamboni is not a dish served with pesto sauce, you also know that in order to reach the Stanley Cup finals, a team needs a hot goaltender. A week into the first round of this year's playoffs, the story of the postseason has been the emergence of a group of hot unknown goalies—rookies, Europeans, guys with nonexistent or less-than-illustrious playoff pasts, guys with nicknames like Archie, Bernie and the Blank Czech.
For perspective: The most shutouts ever in a four-round NHL postseason was 12, a record set two years ago. Through Sunday—with at least 10 games still to be played in the first round—there had already been seven shutouts. Some of the names of the responsible goalies were familiar. Felix (Le Chat) Potvin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who played more like un chien down the stretch this season, notched one of the shutouts, while Mike Richter of the New York Rangers had thrown a pair of bagels at the New York Islanders.
O.K., so you expect Potvin to show up in April, based on his 11 playoff wins as a rookie last year. But you also expect Richter to show up in April...on a Sports-Center highlight clip yielding a 65-foot goal, as he did two years ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins; that goal cost the Rangers the game, the series and, it was widely spoken and written, the Cup. By week's end Richter had expunged that memory and helped terminate the Islanders, stopping 88 of 91 shots in the series as the Rangers swept their hated rivals. Meanwhile, more accomplished playoff goalies were on the bench.
For example, what would the postseason be without Grant Fuhr, one of the greatest playoff goalies in hockey history? Well, in Buffalo this spring they're finding out. Fuhr has five Stanley Cup rings and, during Sabre games, a comfortable seat on the bench. He suffered a knee injury on Nov. 23 and was replaced by 29-year-old Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic, who proceeded to become the first NHL goalie in 20 years to allow an average of less than two goals a game. The Dominator, as Hasek came to be known, finished the season with a 30-20-6 record, a 1.95 goals-against average and seven shutouts, which earned him his second nickname, the Blank Czech. Still, he was snubbed by the All-Star Game selectors.
He even gets dissed at home. Last Friday night Hasek was torched for eight first-period goals in a game against the New Jersey Devils. With less than two minutes left in the period, he was put out of his misery: Using three clicks of a Super Nintendo button, Hasek's four-year-old son, Michael, gave his old man the hook. While his father was memorizing prepositional phrases at the kitchen table for his weekly English tutorial, Michael burbled, "Poor Dominik. Poor Dominik."
Hasek is used to struggling for respect. After leaving his native land shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, whose coach at the time, Mike Keenan, traded him two seasons later to Buffalo for underachieving forward Christian Ruuttu and a draft pick.
In Buffalo this season no one has faulted Sabre coach John Muckler for making Hasek his No. 1 guy. Still, it pained Muckler, who coached Fuhr for five years in Edmonton, to relegate the former winner of the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) to the role of million-dollar insurance policy. "It's been very difficult for me to take Grant out of the lineup," says Muckler. "Grant and I have been through a lot of wars together, and he's been very important to my own success. But Dominik is clearly the best goalie in the NHL at this time."
He may also be the most unorthodox. Hasek makes saves from some unfathomable positions—on his back, for instance, legs perpendicular to his supine body. From that position he is somehow able to locomote and protect the other side of the net—"Like he's break-dancing," says Sabre goalie coach Mitch Korn.
Hasek would dearly love to knock off Keenan's Rangers, but before he has a chance to do that, the Sabres will have to get past the Devils. Through Sunday, Buffalo and New Jersey were tied 2-2, and Hasek, who allowed only seven goals in the four games, was outstanding.
But so was his counterpart. New Jersey's best regular season in franchise history was attributable, in part, to the emergence of 6'1", 205-pound goalie Martin Brodeur, a rangy rookie in the Ken Dry-den mold. In the four games against Buffalo, Brodeur yielded just nine goals.