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 Darcy Regier.
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 Hasek—still anti-Nolan and the last player Rigas needs to alienate—performing 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.
It's Time to Act
Now that Blues star right wing Brett Hull has joined the list of marquee players who have been sidelined by slashes; now that a pair of Western Conference coaches have, according to team sources, phoned commissioner Gary Bettman to bemoan the widespread thwacking; and now that Maple Leafs coach Mike Murphy says flatly, "Slashing is way up," it's time for the league to finally do something.
"It's frustrating," says St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau, whose team lost top center Pierre Turgeon for seven weeks after his right arm was broken on a hack by the Stars' Guy Carbonneau in October and now will be without Hull for a similar period because of the broken bone in his left hand that he suffered when slashed by the Mighty Ducks' Tomas Sandstrom on Dec. 27. "But do we want to penalize every slash?"
Maybe not every slash, but a lot more than referees are calling now, because its frequency is diminishing the game. "Slashing has become a routine defensive tactic," says Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations. "We allow some of it."