Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was coming to the end of his postmeal pep talk last Saturday night when he dropped an oh-by-the-way on his team, a matter-of-fact announcement of who would be playing goal the next day in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rather man the injured Dominik Hasek, the best goalie in the world and a man with a credit-card commercial, the Sabres would start Dwayne Roloson, the best goalie ever to come out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and a man who might need three forms of identification to cash a check. Ruff didn't quite phrase it that way. He simply said, "Rollie's in," and then he reminded his team of Roloson's 5-4-2 record since late February, when Hasek suffered the groin injury that was still plaguing him. Ruff explained to his players that if they could finish one game over .500 in their series against Toronto, they would reach the Stanley Cup finals. "I told the team this was their time for recognition," Ruff says. "I talked about the opportunity for other people to shine."
Including this spring's conference semifinals, Buffalo has won more playoff series the last three years (five, one more than the Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars) than any other team except the two-time Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Yet the Sabres remain as anonymous as participants in any 12-step program. They are overshadowed by Hasek's brilliance. The team is seductive in its simplicity—pugnacious, resilient, moderately quick and blessed with one of hockey's most clever two-way players in 25-year-old center Michael Peca—but the Sabres remain the Dominator and the Dominoes. Their only other name player is Satan. In a just world, forward Miroslav Satan would be known for scoring 40 goals this season. Instead, he is cursed by a spelling that is catnip to sports talk-radio shows. When he does interviews on those shows, Satan, a Slovakian, always politely corrects the host: "In my country it's pronounced Sha-TAN."
"Nobody here has the kind of ego that really demands the attention," says Buffalo forward Rob Ray. "Even Dom. He's given this team an identity, but he just likes being around the game, being around the guys, and he avoids the spotlight when he can."
On Sunday, missing Hasek and Satan, who has been sidelined since Game 3 of the conference quarterfinals with a bruised right foot, the Sabres found another way to win. Buffalo, the team with the largest increase in goals per game from the regular season (2.52) to the playoffs (3.09), beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in the Air Canada Centre in an uneven but thrilling game. Roloson, 29, whose previous playoff experience consisted of 19 minutes, outplayed his Toronto counterpart, a jittery Curtis Joseph, and the Sabres got goals from unlikely contributors such as forward Geoff Sanderson, who had last scored on April 3, and forward Stu Barnes, who had been mired in a 31-game goal drought.
Barnes's first goal since coming to Buffalo in a deal on March 11 upstaged two goals and an assist by Leafs captain Mats Sundin, one of those glossy playoff performances that might have gone down in Toronto lore if the Sabres hadn't forced everybody to read the fine print. If you looked closely at the stat sheet you noticed that Sundin was-1. During five-on-five action Sundin's line was outplayed and outscored (two goals to one) by the checking combination of Peca, Dixon Ward and Vaclav Varada.
"They're as good as any playoff line," Ruff says of that trio. "They aren't quite as good in the regular season because they tend to run out of gas. You can't expect them to play 22, 24 minutes a game and play three games in four nights doing what they do against all the big lines. But in the playoffs, going every other night, not practicing hard on the off days, it makes a difference."
When he took over as Buffalo's coach two years ago, Ruff had some elements of a checking line in place, but he was lacking a winger who could hang on to the puck down low and who could not only administer a beating but also withstand one. Then, in March 1998, the Sabres decided that the fiery 23-year-old Varada, who had been playing for their minor league affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., might be the perfect complement to the Selke Trophy-winning Peca and Ward. Varada is an infuriating presence who doesn't stand for much, including protocol. In midseason he offered the blunt assessment that Wayne Gretzky was no problem to check, a solecism even if it contained a kernel of truth. The New York Rangers, Gretzky's team, frothed in rage.
Of course, the Peca-Ward-Varada line lives to irritate. Peca and friends handled Ottawa Senators star center Alexei Yashin so impressively in a first-round sweep that the series degenerated into a referendum on Yashin's leadership. In Round 2 the line dominated Boston's Jason Allison so thoroughly that Bruins president Harry Sinden publicly lambasted his No. 1 center after Buffalo won that series in six games. Peca is master of defensive positioning who has the speed to find openings on offense. He works well with the 30-year-old Ward, who is slower but has sweet hands and an accurate shot. Ward, in fact, clanged in a goal off a post from 55 feet on Sunday.
"I hope people don't find out about us," Ward says. "With recognition comes expectations. That's not something we want in this room. People keep saying we're a one-man team, and that's fine. We'll just keep on playing, having a little fun."
The one man, Hasek, headed back to Buffalo on Sunday for an MRI to reassess his injury, which had been diagnosed by a specialist in Munich in late March as a slight hernia. Last Saturday, Sabres owner John Rigas dispatched his private plane from Coudersport, Pa., to East Lansing, Mich., to fetch Dr. Lynn Brumm, a specialist from Michigan State, to minister to the goalie. (Try that with your HMO.)