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In the film Buffab'66, two of the characters spend a bleak winter day watching videotapes of Bills games from the team's AFL championship era in the mid-1960s and pining for those good ol' days. In Buffalo '02 the Sabres fans are in a similar state of longing—for Dorninik Hasek, the six-time Vezina Trophy winner who was traded last summer after having made Buffalo a playoff team for eight of the last nine years. "They had a dominant goaltender and they don't have that anymore," says Flyers coach Bill Barber, whose team Buffalo eliminated in the first round of last year's playoffs. "Hasek was their success."
Without Hasek the Sabres through Sunday were 22-25-4-1 and five points behind the Canadiens for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. A small-market team, Buffalo was pressed by financial necessity into trading Hasek, who is earning at least $8 million this season, to the Red Wings for forward Slava Kozlov and a first-round draft pick. "There's pressure on this team all the time, the pressure of knowing you're not where you hope to be in the standings," says alternate captain Rob Ray. "That takes its toll. It's mental mistakes more than anything. We find ways to throw games away"
The Sabres earned playoff berths in five straight seasons and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999, with an average team that had exceptional goaltending. This season they're just plain average, beginning with their I5th-ranked offense (2.67 goals per game). Though wingers Miroslav Satan, 27, and J.P. Dumont, 23, are solid scorers, Buffalo lacks a sniper capable of putting distance between it and its opponents. (In one-and two-goal games the Sabres are 14-21.)
In net, 24-year-old Martin Biron, who's in his third full NHL season, has performed as advertised: He's a developing talent with a chance to be an excellent No. 1 goalie. Despite rocky patches Biron has amassed good overall numbers (2.35 and .909). "We're definitely not in the situation we're in because of goaltending," says center Stu Barnes.
That the Sabres are in rebuilding mode is obvious. As well as dealing Hasek and holdout center Michael Peca last summer, they didn't re-sign free-agent wings Donald Audette and Steve Heinze, both of whom were acquired last March at the trade deadline for the playoff push. Buffalo's talented yet green core group of youngsters is cause for optimism, but coach Lindy Ruff rejects the suggestion that all the Sabres need is time. "Time," he sighs, "can often be a coach-killer. I'm concerned with one thing, and that's winning."
For that he'll have to go to the videotape.
All-Star Game Participation
To the well-worn gripes about the All-Star Game—-it's nothing but a game of shinny, and there's more scoring than at the senior prom—add the complaint many players have rightly voiced this year: With schedules sardine-packed because of the Feb. 14-25 Olympic break, an additional four-day hiatus this week to play a sponsor-driven exhibition game is excessive. Moreover, the league caved to players who kvetched about going to Los Angeles, like Daniel Alfredsson of the Senators and Mike Modano of the Stars, by leaving them off the All-Star rosters.
That means troupers like the Red Wings' Sergei Fedorov, Dominik Hasek and Nicklas Lidstrom, all of whom will play at the Olympics, get the short end by playing in the Ail-Star Game on Saturday. Over a 57-day stretch in January and February that trio will endure 21 NHL games (12 on the road) and as many as six playoff-intensity matches in Salt Lake City. "There shouldn't be an All-Star Game in an Olympic year," says Hasek, the starting goalie for the World All-Star team and the Czech Republic in the Olympics. "It's too much. The schedule could be easier for every team."