The Buffalo Sabres hadn't won a playoff series in a decade. The St. Louis Blues were happy just to have made the playoffs. Both were lambs prepared for the slaughter, fourth-place teams with little hope of success. But last week the slaughter of the lambs was postponed indefinitely, as the Sabres and the Blues, spurred on by spectacular goaltending, pulled off giant upsets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Grant Fuhr, the man who backstopped the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990, was at his acrobatic best for the Sabres, who skewered the Adams Division champion Boston Bruins in a shocking four-game sweep. And Curtis Joseph, a little-known net-minder who was nearly sacrificed by the Blues as free-agent compensation two years ago, spun zeroes for eight consecutive periods in St. Louis's equally shocking sweep of the Norris Division champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"If Curtis Joseph continues to play like this," said Chicago coach Darryl Sutter, blinking back tears after Sunday's series-ending 4-3 overtime defeat in St. Louis, "anything can happen. It just did."
Sutter can commiserate with his brother, Boston coach Brian Sutter, who was the most frustrated man in Buffalo after Fuhr stonewalled the Bruins. "If Fuhr's not standing on his ear, we win," Sutter said. "He's a world-class goalie. What can you do?"
You can lose. And lose. And lose. Fuhr was knocked out of Game 4 last Saturday night with a strained right knee, but the Bruins apparently couldn't get him out of their minds. Backup Dominik Hasek played like the master, and the Sabres came from three goals behind to prevail 6-5 in overtime and send the crowd at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium into a broom-heaving frenzy.
With all due respect to Roger Crozier, Fuhr may soon be recognized as the best goalie in Buffalo history. And he has only been in town since Groundhog Day, when the Sabres traded high-scoring wing Dave Andreychuk, goalie Daren Puppa and a first-round draft pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs to get him. Buffalo coach John Muckler, for whom Fuhr had played in Edmonton, relentlessly lobbied general manager Gerry Meehan to make the deal. To win a playoff series you have no business winning, Muckler argued, you need a goalie who knows how to steal a few big games. "The price was high," says Muckler, "but we got what we needed."
Fuhr, at 30, isn't as dominant or as carefree as he once was. He's on his third team and his second messy divorce, and the 60-game suspension he received during the 1990-91 season for using an illegal drug, reportedly cocaine, still casts a shadow over his accomplishments. Nonetheless, there's no denying his 77-32 playoff record. "This is my time of year," says Fuhr. "This is when I have the most fun. You play 84 games to get to the playoffs, so you might as well enjoy them once you get here."
The Sabres were hardly enjoying themselves before the start of the Boston series. They had lost their last seven regular-season games to finish with a 38-36-10 record and 86 points, 23 fewer than the Bruins. Muckler and Meehan were sharpening their knives, privately blaming each other for the impending debacle. The players, embarrassed by their performance, were caught up in the gloom. "We were dreadful," Fuhr says. "We lacked enthusiasm. We lacked emotion. And it showed."
Then the curtain went up, and Fuhr stopped everything the Bruins threw at him. Inspired, the Sabres took the first two games in Boston. In Game 3 in Buffalo, Fuhr stopped flurry after flurry from Bruin sharpshooters Adam Oates, Cam Neely and Joé Juneau. His reflexes and glove seemed as fast as ever. At one point in the third period, after diving to fend off a point-blank shot by Neely, Fuhr did a backward somersault to get back on his skates. The Sabres won 4-3 in overtime.
His teammates are duly impressed. "He's the best goalie I've ever faced, the best I've ever seen, and he's playing better now than he ever has," says Buffalo center Pat LaFontaine. "I'm glad he's on our side."