The Buffalo Sabres talked about trying to be more aggressive, take more chances and get their struggling offense going. They changed their lineup, changed their lines and took shorter shifts. As it turned out, all the Sabres needed to even the Stanley Cup finals at two games apiece was a pair of miscues by the Dallas Stars and another strong performance from goalie Dominik Hasek.
Geoff Sanderson and Dixon Ward scored goals off Dallas turnovers and Hasek made 30 saves to lead Buffalo to a 2-1 victory at Marine Midland Arena tonight in Game 4 of the best-of-seven finals. Game 5 will be Thursday night in Dallas.
"This was a must-win game for us," said Ward, whose only goal in his previous four games was an empty-netter. "If we didn't win this game, you could pretty much take us off the burner because we were done, especially against this team."
Buffalo's goals were a result of mistakes by veteran defensemen Craig Ludwig and Shawn Chambers. Sanderson scored on a first-period breakaway and Ward scored the game-winner following a giveaway in the slot midway through the second period.
"I don't know if it was the ice or mishandling the puck," said Sanderson, who had not scored in four games, "but it is nice to capitalize on the few mistakes they do make."
After two consecutive losses, Buffalo's victory revitalized a physical series with plenty of chippy play. The only time a team has led by more than one goal was after an empty-net goal by Dallas with 26 seconds left in Game 2. The Sabres are now 8-1 at home in the postseason.
"I thought most of the game was passion and emotion," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought we had a game where we came charging out of the gates hitting-wise, emotion-wise."
Leading the way for the Sabres was Hasek, the outspoken goaltender with the unofficial title of "world's best goalie." He was splendid when necessary tonight, making difficult saves and covering up for the Sabres' lack of offense; Buffalo has scored just eight goals in the series.
If either team needed extra emotion for the battle, Hasek provided it at the end of the second period. Feeling that Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher had tried to trip him, Hasek responded with a two-handed shove that knocked the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Hatcher to the ice. Stars right wing Pat Verbeek then flattened Hasek from behind, setting off a near brawl.
Referee Dan Marouelli grabbed Hasek, separated him from the fracas and escorted him to the Sabres' bench. Along the way, Hasek stopped near the blue line to shout at Dallas goaltender Ed Belfour. When Hasek arrived at the bench, he received several appreciative taps on his pads from teammates.
The Stars' best chance in the third period came with eight minutes left when Dave Reid circled the goal and skated in front with no defenders nearby. He held the puck for a moment as Hasek sprawled over the ice, but was unable to lift his shot over Hasek. Earlier, Ludwig's shot from the blue line struck Buffalo forward Randy Cunneyworth in front of the goal as Hasek tried to dive into position.
Dallas, which played without right wing Brett Hull (groin injury), held a 13 to 2 advantage in shots in the third period, but none got past Hasek.
"He played exceptionally once again and came up with very big saves, as he has throughout the playoffs," Sabres defenseman Jay McKee said. "And he came up with another win for us."
The Sabres' offense has been nothing short of woeful in this series, scoring more than two goals only in their 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1. Tonight was more of the same, with Dallas clogging up the neutral zone and limiting Buffalo's chances.
However, the two miscues that resulted in goals were enough for Buffalo to take the victory.
Sanderson got a breakaway when Verbeek's pass back to Chambers at the right point got by him. Sanderson picked up the puck on the fly and skated alone down the left wing. Sanderson faked a slap shot from the left circle, then deked Belfour to the ice by pulling the puck to his backhand as he moved to the middle. He knocked the puck into the open net for a 1-0 lead with 11 minutes 51 seconds left in the period.
Dallas tied the game at 1 on a power-play goal by Jere Lehtinen two minutes later, but that was the only shot that got by Hasek.
Dallas had a pair of chances to take the lead early in the second period, but Hasek stopped Daryl Sydor's shot on a backdoor cut and Joe Nieuwendyk's shot from the right circle during a 4-on-4.
The Sabres then took the lead on an innocent play. Retreating to play a dump-in, Ludwig tried to pass the puck across the slot to Chambers. Ludwig missed most of the puck, and it fluttered to Ward, who sent a wrist shot past Belfour on the stick side for a 2-1 lead with 12:33 left in the period.
"Obviously it is frustrating," Dallas defenseman Richard Matvichuk said. "We had an opportunity to go up three [games to] one and we didn't."
CAPTION: Sabres' Geoff Sanderson, right, is congratulated by Brian Holzinger after scoring game's first goal.