After the Buffalo Sabres' disappointing performance Saturday night, Dominik Hasek decided it was time to speak.
There were no revelations when the world's best goaltender addressed a team meeting the day after a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. Hasek simply told his teammates to take more chances offensively and he would make up for any defensive breakdowns. Although the Sabres already had confidence in the two-time NHL most valuable player, hearing him say those words made a difference.
"We all knew that was the case," Buffalo defenseman Jay McKee said. "But we were just glad he said it."
Said Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff: "What he said was, `Bring it on.' I kind of echoed the sentiments. . . . They are a tough team to create chances against. Dominik said, `Listen. Go for it. If it is breakaways or two-on-ones you throw on me, I am up to the challenge. And if [Dallas] thinks it is going to be physical, I am going to get involved too.' I think emotionally, he was the leader of the game for us. He set the tone."
The tone, that is, for the Sabres' 2-1 victory in Game 4 Tuesday night, which evened the best-of-seven series at 2. Game 5 will be Thursday night at Reunion Arena.
"It was a much better [team] effort than two days ago," Hasek said. "We were forechecking better and backchecking much harder."
Dallas right wing Brett Hull (strained groin), who had one goal in each of the first two games of the series, has been upgraded from doubtful to questionable and likely will play Thursday; left wing Benoit Hogue (torn knee ligament) is scheduled to play as well.
But in this physical and emotional series, everything has revolved around Hasek, the four-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, which annually goes to the league's best goalie, and the two-time winner of the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league's most valuable player.
When the series began, several observers predicted a fifth consecutive finals sweep unless Hasek could steal a game or two for the underdog Sabres. After Buffalo recorded a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1, the Stars decided they would use physical means to distract Hasek.
At every opportunity, the Dallas players have made contact with Hasek, who wanders out of the crease as much as any goalie in the league. In Game 2, Brian Skrudland sparked a near brawl when he checked Hasek to the ice as the two went after a loose puck in a corner. Later in that game, Joe Nieuwendyk collided with Hasek, knocking the goaltender's blocker off his hand. At other times, Stars players have tried to slash Hasek's stick out of his hand.
Hasek has responded in kind. He pushed 6-foot-5, 225-pound defenseman Derian Hatcher to the ice after the second period ended Tuesday night because he thought Hatcher had tried to trip him. And while he was being escorted off the ice by referee Dan Marouelli, Hasek slowed to yap at Dallas goalie Ed Belfour.
"I was really mad because it was after the whistle," Hasek said of Hatcher's alleged hit.
Meanwhile, the Stars have added some verbal swipes to their rough-up Hasek campaign. Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock said that Hasek should be penalized in certain situations for throwing his stick and that, in other instances, Hasek strategically dropped his stick so it might stop some shots while he was out of position. The Stars also have accused Hasek of taking sensational dives in an attempt to draw penalties.
Regardless, Hasek has been solid in this series. With the Sabres clinging to a 2-1 lead Tuesday night, he made a spectacular save on Guy Carbonneau's point-blank shot late in the second period. In the third period, Dallas forward Dave Reid was alone in front of the goal and had Hasek down; but Reid failed to lift the puck over Hasek, who flailed his arms and legs in the air to block the shot.
"We had two or three opportunities where it was just us and him and we didn't bury our chances," Dallas defenseman Daryl Sydor said.
Although Sydor and Hitchcock said they didn't believe Hasek was the reason for Buffalo's victory in Game 4, Sabres right wing Vaclav Varada was quick to heap praise on his goalie.
"Dom just took over the game tonight," Varada said. "We feel very confident with him in the net. Two goals, for us, is enough when he is on his game."
The Stars and Dallas city officials already have made plans for a victory parade (it will be Monday if they win in six games, Friday if they win in seven). But Hasek and the Sabres are in position to ruin those plans.
"Now it is best of three," Hasek said. "Dallas, of course, has the home-ice advantage. They have the two home games. But we are confident."
CAPTION: Sabres' Dominik Hasek says his team improved its play in winning Game 4. "We were forechecking better and backchecking much harder," he says.