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Hedberg ready for Hasek, Sabres |

Hedberg ready for Hasek, Sabres

| Wednesday, April 25, 2001 12:00 a.m

It wasn’t hard to find the Penguins’ first-round playoff hero Tuesday afternoon. He was alone in his hotel room, peacefully watching television after a morning massage.

But as good as he felt, something was missing.

‘The days between games, I miss my family a lot,’ said goaltender Johan Hedberg, who will live out of a hotel for as long as this playoff ride lasts. ‘When we’re playing, we’re so caught up in it, there would be no time to take care of them, anyway.’

Hedberg’s wife and two young daughters remain in Winnipeg, where Molly, 5, is finishing the school year. Her dad is getting an education of another sort – and he’s earning straight A’s so far.

Hedberg, who turns 28 on May 3, emerged from utter obscurity to grab the spotlight in the Penguins’ first-round victory against the Washington Capitals. He allowed only 10 goals in six games.

‘He’s the reason we won,’ Mario Lemieux said. ‘He’s a joy to watch.’

Was it just last month that Hedberg was toiling for the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League• Just last month that he made his NHL debut• Has he really played only 15 NHL games•

Hedberg is keeping some pretty lofty company these days. He outplayed his counterpart, defending Vezina Trophy winner Olaf Kolzig, in the first round. His .938 save percentage was bettered only by Toronto’s Curtis Joseph. His 1.60 goals-against average was topped only by Joseph and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur.

Next up: a showdown against Dominik Hasek, arguably the greatest goaltender in NHL history.

‘It’s a great challenge,’ Hedberg said. ‘He’s probably the best goaltender in the world, and he has proved that he’s one of the best guys in the big games, too. So, I’m really going to have be on top of my game to be able to match him up and give my team a chance to win.’

Hedberg’s teammates believe that he will do just that. And they know this isn’t a two-man series.

‘I don’t think it’s Hedberg’s job to beat Dominik Hasek,’ defenseman Bob Boughner said. ‘I think he just has to make the big saves, like he did in this series, and give us a chance to win games. Everybody knows Dominik and how can just take the game away from you at times.’

Hedberg remembers watching the acrobatic Hasek play for the Czech National Team, before Hasek broke into the NHL. Hedberg enjoyed Hasek’s manic style. That didn’t mean he was going to try it.

‘He’s incomparable,’ Hedberg said. ‘I don’t think you can every really copy Hasek. He’s got a style all his own. But there’s always some part you try to see, something you can use. In his case, it’s desperation saves.’

Hedberg made one of those in the second period of Game 6 against Capitals center Jeff Halpern. In true Hasek-like fashion, Hedberg rolled over in the goal crease, thrust out his arm and made a miraculous save as his big, blue Moose mask flew off.

The save prompted raucous cheers of ‘Mooooooose!’ throughout Mellon Arena. That is Hedberg’s new nickname, of course. He quickly has become a fan favorite, following in the skates of last year’s playoff hero, Ron Tugnutt.

But Hedberg’s face – mostly hidden behind that fashion-challenged mask – doesn’t yet draw crowds in public.

‘Sometimes, people recognize me,’ Hedberg said. ‘But I don’t leave the hotel too much. Some people congratulate me. It’s fun. I really like the people here.’

Hedberg’s teammates are amazed at his poise. As teammate Kevin Stevens said, ‘It just seems like he’s been in there for 30 years.’

Added defenseman Marc Bergevin: ‘It’s hard to believe, but he’s on a roll, and you know it’s not luck. He’s been playing well since he got here. He definitely won the series for us. We all feel he’ll keep it up.’

Teammates respect the way Hedberg prepares for games. They admire his aggressiveness and his fearless style. They loved the way he jumped Capitals forward Trevor Linden as Linden punched Lemieux at the end of Game 5.

‘He’s a very competitive guy,’ defenseman Ian Moran said. ‘You can just tell by the look he gets in his eye on game day. From the morning skate on, he’s very focused.’

The education of this goalie, however, has only just begun. Hedberg says he doesn’t feel like veteran yet. Not by a longshot. He’s starting to look like one, though. His playoff beard – if you want to call it that – is beginning to take shape.

‘I hope there will be time for it to get really long and ugly,’ he said.

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