Jason Woolley was waived by the Washington Capitals. He played in the minor leagues hoping to attract attention, then rode the bench with the Florida Panthers. And Woolley had been told enough times that he would not make it in the NHL, that he was almost ready to believe the naysayers.

There is no such talk now.

After being acquired by the Buffalo Sabres from the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the 1997-98 season, Woolley has flourished under Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff. He became one of the team's top defensemen and Tuesday night he enjoyed the biggest moment in his professional career, scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to give Buffalo a 3-2 victory over the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at Reunion Arena. Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is here Thursday night.

"This really seemed far out of reach," Woolley said, reflecting on the struggles he endured during his eight-year pro career. "Now that it is here, it is just determination and hard work. There were so many times you want to pack up the tent and go home. . . . Nothing has come easy for me in my career. This is really special for me right now."

Game 1 was special for the Sabres, who are in the finals for only the second time in franchise history after losing in 1975 to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Buffalo trailed for most of the game after Dallas's Brett Hull scored on a power play with 10 minutes 17 seconds gone in the first period. The Sabres tied the game on Stu Barnes's goal 8:33 into the third period. Five minutes later, Wayne Primeau scored to put Buffalo ahead, 2-1. The Sabres were 49 seconds from victory when Dallas -- with goalie Ed Belfour replaced by a sixth skater -- forced overtime on Jere Lehtinen's goal.

Woolley's overtime goal, his fourth of the playoffs, gave the Sabres home-ice advantage in the series. Games 3 and 4 will be at Marine Midland Arena, where the Sabres are 7-0 in the playoffs.

Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek today said the strained groin muscle that forced him to miss the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals is fine. But Hasek and his teammates are battling another problem: the heat.

Hasek said he cramped up after making a save on Pat Verbeek's point-blank scoring chance in overtime. When the puck went to the other end of the ice and Woolley scored the game-winning goal, Hasek said he wanted to skate to the celebration in the offensive zone but was too tired. He did an awkward-looking belly flop and stayed on the ice for several seconds.

"I said, `No more,' and I fell on the ice," Hasek said. "I don't remember ever having been so tired during the game."

Woolley had several years when he wished he was more tired, as he played sporadically. His was not a clear path to NHL fame.

After growing up in Toronto, he took an unusual route for a young Canadian player by accepting a scholarship to Michigan State. He struggled there -- Spartans Coach Ron Mason said that Woolley did not "have a defensive bone in his body" -- but was taken by the Capitals in the fourth round of the 1989 entry draft.

At that stage, the Capitals had a strong defense corps that included Kevin Hatcher, Scott Stevens, Calle Johansson and Rod Langway, so there was no need to rush Woolley on to the roster. He held off turning professional and played for Canada in the 1992 Olympics, then signed with the Capitals.

Woolley spent the next three seasons shuttling from Washington to its minor league affiliates in Baltimore and Portland, Maine, but was waived by the Capitals following the 1993-94 season. With the Capitals' talented defensemen, particularly offensive-minded players such as Hatcher, Sylvain Cote and Al Iafrate, Woolley never could crack the lineup on a permanent basis.

"I didn't get a very good chance in Washington at all," Woolley said today to a mob of reporters. "It was real frustrating for me. I don't know why they drafted me. They had a logjam of defensemen, and not just defensemen but offensive defensemen. The year I tried to fit in, they had those [three defensemen who were] 20-goal scorers."

Then came the NHL lockout in the fall of 1994 and Woolley's career was at a junction. No team was interested in signing him to a contract and his wife, Danica, was pregnant with the couple's first child.

"I had no job and nowhere to go," Woolley said.

So he signed a contract to play for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League, compiled eight goals and 28 assists in 48 games and earned a contract with the Florida Panthers. That marked his resurgence.

Woolley helped the Panthers reach the finals in 1996, then was traded to the Penguins the following season. After a contract dispute in the fall of 1997, Woolley was traded to the Sabres for a fifth-round draft pick. Ruff was familiar with Woolley from their days together in Florida, where Ruff was an assistant coach.

"Jason was our power-play guy" in Florida, Ruff said today. "I think the thing people didn't realize is that Jason is a good player defensively as well as offensively. I think he has slowly earned that respect over the last two or three years. . . . When I got the job [before the 1997-98 season], I knew that the one thing we needed was help on the power play."

Woolley has helped on the power play, but he's been impressive in all situations during the playoffs. And on Tuesday, when he came off the bench and one-timed a pass from teammate -- and hotel roommate -- Curtis Brown for the winning goal, Woolley had the highlight of his career.

"It still hasn't kicked in, but it really doesn't have to," said Woolley, who said he had several messages on his cellular phone after the game. "It is one of those things that doesn't kick in until summertime."

CAPTION: Sabres' Jason Woolley is the center of attention after his game-winning overtime goal in Game 1.