The Buffalo Sabres will go only as far this spring as goaltender Dominik Hasek will take them, which on a sun-dappled morning in Ottawa last week was maybe a mile. Instead of the traditional game-day skate early in the day of the first-round series opener against the Senators, the Sabres took a stroll along the Rideau Canal. A morning constitutional clears the mind and sharpens the powers of observation—"That's where Mary Poppins crashed," said winger Dixon Ward, noting an umbrella sticking out of the muddy canal—but mostly it's an exercise in New Age team bonding. They trudged en masse, Hasek in the lead, coaches in the rear, until the goalie declared, "O.K., enough." The Sabres, as if on command, turned back.
Shortly thereafter Hasek started turning back the befuddled Senators as underdog Buffalo jumped to a 3-0 series lead over a team suddenly searching for an exit. In a display of exceptional goaltending that is routine for Hasek, he stopped 116 of 119 shots. Ottawa's three goals came on the power play, although none was scored by Senators star center Alexei Yashin, who couldn't find much room to maneuver after Sabres captain Michael Peca climbed inside his jersey and into his head. A dazed Yashin, held without a point in the three games by a center who is four inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter, walked out of Marine Midland Arena after a 3-0 defeat on Sunday looking like a man on his way to an audit.
Buffalo is not as easy to read as the crestfallen Yashin. Which team is it: the one that tied for the fewest losses in the first half of the season or the one that stumbled from first to seventh in the Eastern Conference after that? Are they the halting Sabres who stole a 2-1 win against Ottawa in Game 1, despite being outshot 41-15? Or are they the middling team that survived 3-2 in double overtime in Game 2? Or are they the confident team that appeared for Game 3, in which Peca set up an early goal and Hasek got his fourth career playoff shutout by stopping 31 shots? Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier admits bewilderment at his club's inconsistencies. "We are unorthodox," Regier says. "A lot like Dom."
The Dominator does have an inimitable style, replete with flailing arms and fumbled goal sticks, but it's rooted in the solid goal-tending principles of reading the play and anticipating the shot. In the first three games Hasek lost his stick perhaps 15 times and made a few saves while flat on his back. The only new wrinkle seemed to come on a point-blank shot by forward Vaclav Prospal in Game 1 when, stickless, Hasek stopped the puck while crouched inside the net in a lotus position, looking less like a goalie than a meditating guru. For a moment Hasek was the Ommm-inator.
Although the conventional wisdom is that Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr will win the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP this season, the Buffalo goalie had better statistics in 1998-99 (a 1.87 goals-against average and a league-leading .937 save percentage) than he did in winning the Hart the two previous seasons. Hasek's only slump came after Christmas, when he allowed 14 goals in 81 shots over three games, which coincided with a visit from the Czech Republic by his parents, Jan and Marie, who had never seen him play as a Sabre. Son, are you sure you're an NHL star?
More worrisome than parental pressure was a groin injury that forced him to miss 12 games from late February to late March. Tennis star Petr Korda, a fellow Czech, told Hasek about a specialist in Munich, Ulrike Muschaweck, who Korda claimed had saved his career. In a whirlwind trip endorsed by Sabres management, Hasek flew to Munich, saw the doctor, learned for the first time that he had a small hernia and was back in net three days later. "It gave me peace of mind," says Hasek, who still ices the injury after each game. "I was glad to see somebody who told me exactly what was wrong."
In his 10 regular-season starts after the consultation, Hasek had a dizzying .943 save percentage, a 1.45 goals-against average and a smile. "Dom's pretty easy to read," Peca says. "You look at his face, check his body language. He'd been pretty discouraged, but when he came back he was more upbeat, energetic."
Peca, who had a goal and three assists against Ottawa in the first three games, was in fine form himself and didn't look as gaunt as he usually does. Despite his sunken cheeks, Peca's weight hardly fluctuates from 180 pounds, although as a precaution against fatigue this spring he has turned to drink. After Game 1, Peca sat at his locker room stall with two bananas, a bottle of water, a quart of orange sport drink and a chaser of bubblegum-flavored Pedialyte, an electrolyte replacement fluid favored by pediatricians, probably because they don't drink it themselves. "This stuff," Peca says, "tastes like chalk."
"Peca's bound and determined to lead us," says his linemate Ward, "especially after last season." The Sabres reached the '97-98 conference finals, but their captain was hardly a commanding presence. He missed the first two matches against the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 because of a sprained left knee, reinjured the knee in the second round against the Montreal Canadiens and was sweating out his availability for his impending nuptials. Failing to take into account the NHL's extended schedule because of the 1998 Olympic break, he and his then fianc�e, Kristin, had set a wedding date of June 20, the same day, it turned out, as a possible Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. As Buffalo skipped through the early rounds, locker room jibes about china patterns and Stanley Cup stemware grew louder. Peca was clearly agitated at the time, but he refused to comment on the matter.
"Instead of keeping his mouth shut," says Ward, "he should have said, 'I'll cancel the wedding, I'll be happy to be married in July.' "