Buffalo's Notorious tenderloin district is located just a few inches south of Dominik Hasek's belt buckle. The area, formally known as Hasek's groin, was a veritable tourist attraction last week, explored by a local TV medical reporter who did a supper-hour piece on groins, a story guaranteed to up the ratings and your dinner; by a Buffalo sports talk radio host who, in a finding with likely Nobel Prize implications, claimed Hasek's groin is directly attached to his cerebellum (i.e., the problem is all in his head); and by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who did their probing from the proximity of the Buffalo Sabres' crease. Hasek's groin was the most public of private parts.
"You go to the gas station and it's, 'What's up with Dom?' as if we really know more than we read," Sabres enforcer Rob Ray says. "You go to the coffee shop and it's, 'How's the groin?' In a small city like this, desperate for a winner, the people assume he's going to be the reason if we win. Of course there was pressure on him from inside the [dressing] room to play, just like there was pressure on him throughout the city to play. Every day guys in here were going up to him and asking how it was feeling, how he was doing. When he came back [after missing the first two games against Toronto], you saw how we raised our level of play, our level of excitement. It was like, He's here, now let's go get 'em."
Hasek, who is suffering from the lingering effects of a groin strain that he sustained in February and (given the expectations of his teammates) a slightly twisted arm, returned for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals last Thursday. He helped Buffalo beat Toronto 4-2 to put the Sabres up two games to one and repeated his mastery two nights later in a 5-2 victory. The latter game featured a second-period performance by Buffalo that was as imposing as any 20 minutes in the 1999 playoffs, with an offensive explosion that produced three goals in 2:35. If the balky groin is holding up at all—"I don't even think about it once the game starts," Hasek said after Game 4—it is indisputably healthier than the Maple Leafs, who were eliminated in five games after losing 4-2 to the Sabres on Monday night in Toronto.
All the attention directed at the tenderloin district did not unnerve Hasek. In the opening moments of Game 3, he roamed from the sanctity of his crease, handling the puck against Maple Leafs forechecking, inviting if not initiating contact and flopping to the ice with considerable brio when the Leafs nudged him. "[Referee Kerry] Fraser came up to me and said, 'Don't touch him. I know his act, and I'm not going to call anything, but don't touch him,' " reported Toronto roughneck Tie Domi, who most certainly touched Hasek in the dying seconds of that game, skating into the crease and ramming him into the post. The bump touched off some predictable shenanigans that featured Sabres coach Lindy Ruff striding in the direction of the Toronto bench and screaming, "You're one f——— dead man," although 36 hours later Ruff said that the remark wasn't directed at Leafs coach Pat Quinn or Domi, who was still in midscuffle on the ice. Ruff and Domi were roommates on the 1990-91 New York Rangers when Ruff was a fading defenseman and Domi a callow but irrepressible fighter. "We used to call him Ruff at home and Lindy on the road," Domi recalled with sly satisfaction. After being told of Domi's remarks, Ruff countered by reciting this bit of doggerel he dreamed up when Domi was a rookie: You touch me, you go me. My name is Tie Domi.
"Most goalies have a breaking point," says Toronto center Steve Sullivan, a 5'7", 155-pound irritant who routinely buzzed the Sabres' crease and was penalized for interfering with Hasek in Game 4. "Hasek's so acrobatic, so athletic. You can't be out of your net, skating around, putting yourself in jeopardy if you're seriously injured. I'm not saying he's faking—pro athletes know their bodies—but we were just questioning how severe [his injury] is."
The wearisome inquiries about the tenderloin were related only partially to the injury Hasek sustained in the regular season. "I feel like I'm answering questions from two years ago," says Ruff, who wasn't even in Buffalo during Hasek's first celebrated playoff absence, during the 1997 postseason. In Game 3 of a first-round series against the Ottawa Senators, Hasek abruptly skated off the ice with an injury that was diagnosed as a mild right knee sprain. Yet he missed the remainder of that round and all of the following series, in which Buffalo was eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. His extended absence was questioned by the Buffalo media, triggering a bizarre sequence of events that included Hasek's physically confronting a Buffalo newspaper columnist and a locker room press conference in which Sabres players stood in a semicircle behind Hasek in a tableau that reeked of stage-managed symbolism. Hasek's reputation as a perfectionist who is disinclined to play at anything less than peak shape has been an issue since.
Still, Hasek has earned some slack because he does things no one else can, such as getting an assist on a shorthanded goal in Game 4 while killing a penalty he committed. (He was whistled for interference during a brief moment of wanderlust.) Of course, his was only the second most surprising name on the score sheet, behind Ray's. The tough forward tallied the winner on a deflection from the slot that struck the ice and bounced past Toronto defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev and netminder Curtis Joseph; it was Ray's first goal of the season, his first playoff goal in five years. He was so excited to score that between periods he called his parents, John and Edith, in Stirling, Ont. "If that stuff doesn't go on in the last 30 seconds of Game 3, I'm probably not in the lineup," said Ray, who had dressed for only two of the Sabres' first 13 playoff games. "So thank you, Toronto."
The Maple Leafs were indeed generous in Game 4, coughing up the puck like an old torn with a fur ball, firing blind passes in the middle of the ice, playing with neither poise nor a clue against a team that was faster, grittier, better balanced (10 Sabres scored in the first four games of the series) and markedly superior on special teams. "They initiated every turnover, every hit, every play," Toronto captain Mats Sundin said following that match. "I don't think we had one player who outplayed one of their guys. They beat the whole roster."
Sundin scored both Leafs goals, the first on a penalty shot in which he picked the top corner over Hasek's glove. Ruff suggested that if Hasek had been 100%—or if the score hadn't been 5-0 at the time—he would have been on his knees in the butterfly position, giving Sundin what he gave Team Canada in the 1998 Olympic semifinal shootout: nothing. When Ruff's theory was advanced, Hasek just smiled, deciding not to go there. He was the only one keeping away from the tenderloin.