A little more than a year ago, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek was considering retirement. Mario Lemieux already had retired, and it seemed like such a shame.
The NHL’s all-time greatest goal scorer never would get to face arguably its greatest goaltender in a playoff series. Not unless ESPN made it the subject of a Dream Matchup show.
A year later, the Dream Matchup is here – only it’s no dream. Lemieux and Hasek will stare each other down tonight at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal.
‘Good timing,’ Lemieux says of this chance meeting.
Good timing, indeed. Moments like this are to be seized. So, grab yourself an IC Light (or a Genny Cream, as the case might be) and appreciate the fact that these showdowns rarely occur outside of fantasy board games and barroom debates.
This is Koufax against McGuire. Rice versus Blount. Shaq against Russell.
Toss Jaromir Jagr into the mix, and you’ve got an opportunity that normally would occur only in the Olympics: A chance to see perhaps the three greatest players in the world on the same ice surface for two weeks.
Lemieux’s plaque already hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hasek’s and Jagr’s are sure to follow. Among them, the three own six Hart Trophies – including four of the past five – and four Stanley Cup rings.
Unfortunately for Hasek, all the rings belong to Jagr and Lemieux.
Hasek, who turned 36 in January, desperately wants one of his own. This could be his last chance. He is in the final year of his contract, which the Sabres can renew for $9 million. If they don’t, Hasek could become an unrestricted free agent.
If he wins a Stanley Cup, he’ll probably retire. He might quit anyway and just play in next year’s Olympics.
Hasek’s thoughts for now, however, are riveted on the Stanley Cup. An explosive Penguins team stands in his way. Two men, in particular.
Can he shut them downâ¢
‘Impossible,’ Hasek said. ‘Lemieux will score some goals. Jagr will score some goals. The question is, how manyâ¢ How well will we play defense against themâ¢ How many breakaways or two-on-ones or big chances am I gonna’ stopâ¢ You know they’re going to score some goals, but how many goals?’
The answer will go a long way toward determining a winner in this series.
Hasek wasn’t perfect that night, but he was darn close. He played like a caffeine-crazed Gumby.
‘He was unbelievable,’ Lemieux said. ‘I was watching the tape a couple of months ago. He was just unbelievable. I had a couple of breakaways, which he stopped me on. Kevin Stevens had a couple of breakaways, which he stopped. Back then, he was just the backup to Belfour. Nobody really knew how good he was.’
The Blackhawks obviously didn’t, or they wouldn’t have shipped Hasek to the Sabres for goalie Stephane Beauregard and a fourth-round draft pick (which turned out to be Eric Daze) a year later.
Five Vezina Trophies later, Hasek has solidified his reputation as one of the greatest goalies ever. Lemieux is one of many players – by far the most notable – who has been unable to figure him out.
Lemieux’s goals-per-game average of .822 is easily the best in NHL history, but he has just three goals in 10 games against Hasek. He never has scored on Hasek in Buffalo (0 for 5) and has a lower shooting percentage (7.6) against Hasek than against any active goaltender, excluding the ones he saw for the first time this season. He has scored on just one of his past 31 shots against Hasek.
Of course, Lemieux has a way of reversing such statistical trends in a hurry (try one shift), but it’s worth adding that Hasek is one of two men (Bill Ranford) who’ve stopped Lemieux on a penalty shot. He has scored six times.
One of Lemieux’s greatest weapons is his ability to read goalies. Hasek is about as readable as the Czech phone book.
‘When you think you’ve got him beat, he throws an arm or a pad in there and makes the unbelievable save,’ Lemieux said. ‘That’s why it’s so tough to play against him. You never know what he’s going to do. Obviously, he has been the best goaltender in the world for many years, and I certainly have a lot of respect for him.’
Lemieux last faced Hasek on Jan. 29, 1997 – the day Hasek turned 32. Hasek has followed Lemieux’s comeback. He probably realizes that Lemieux would have led the Sabres in goals despite playing just 43 games.
‘I’ve seen him on TV,’ Hasek said. ‘He’s obviously in the same shape he was when he retired. I see him the same way. He’s not slower, not at all.’
Hasek also knows that Lemieux isn’t the Penguins’ only weapon.
Red Light District
The Penguins are 15-11-5 against Hasek. They knocked him from the box in a 6-4 victory Dec. 1 at Buffalo (Hasek would beat them a night later at Mellon Arena), and he has just four victories (4-5-3) in his past 13 starts against them.
Several Penguins players have worked with Hasek. They know how incredibly competitive he is – Wayne Primeau still marvels at how Hasek would order teammates to shoot at his head in practice – but they are able to cut through the mystique.
Bob Boughner and Primeau played with Hasek in Buffalo. Robert Lang, Martin Straka, Josef Beranek, Frantisek Kucera and Jagr played with him on the gold-medal winning Czech Olympic team in 1998.
Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka coached that squad.
‘Everybody knows how good he is, but I believe we can score some goals against him,’ Hlinka said. ‘He’s not God. He’s just a great goalie.’
Jagr has Hasek’s number, relatively speaking. He has 14 goals in 31 games against Hasek. That’s more than any other player in the league.
That doesn’t mean Jagr is overconfident. Far from it. He has just two goals in 14 career home games against Hasek.
‘The way he played at Nagano (in the Olympics) was the biggest key for our team to win the gold,’ Jagr said. ‘But do I have any secretsâ¢ No, I don’t. You have to have two shots, one on Dominik and one on other goalies. We have to shoot and go to the net and look for deflections. That’s always the easiest goal. If you shoot, you never know.’
The Sabres are well aware that the Penguins’ second line is nearly as dangerous as the first. Alexei Kovalev, for example, beat Hasek twice this season. But the Sabres aim to target Lemieux and Jagr.
Rough-and-tumble Rhett Warrener figures to be a major thorn in their sides, as do Jay McKee and Alexei Zhitnik.
‘If you’re going to hit them, hit them,’ McKee said. ‘But they’re great players because they know how to keep their heads up and how to move.’
Hasek can’t wait to get started, but he also knows that he’ll need some help.
‘We have to do it together,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way to beat these guys. We know they’re going to score some goals. If they don’t score too many, we can beat them.’