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Sabres Central

Hedberg bolts the door again
By Rick Anderson
January 11, 2002

Johan Hedberg robs Sabres' forward Chris Gratton of a goal in the second stanza. Hedberg made 36 saves for his 5th shutout of the season.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

Johan Hedberg loves playing against the Buffalo Sabres. Last spring, he almost singlehandedly kept the Sabres out of the Eastern Conference Finals with his stellar goaltending. Thursday night in Buffalo's HSBC Arena, he helped the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Sabres once again. Hedberg made 36 saves and completely outshone Sabres goalie Martin Biron.

Last year the Penguins beat the Sabres in seven games to advance to the conference finals. Hedberg had the Sabres shaking their heads after making one phenomenal save after another in that playoff series. Hedberg had the Sabres shaking their heads again Thursday as he continued his dominance over Buffalo.

"Some of the accountability has to fall on the guys we pay a lot of money to score goals," insisted Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "You can talk about great chances, but I'd rather talk about goals."

No Goal Part V

Right at the end of the second period, the Sabres thought they had finally scored on their nemesis in goal. During a flurry of action in front of the Swedish goalie, Denis Hamel swiped at the puck in mid-air behind Hedberg. The referee Kerry Fraser immediately signaled a goal. Hedberg protested that Hamel had hit it with a high stick. Hedberg won the argument as the replay officials ruled that Hamel had indeed hit the puck above the legal height. That was a controversial call to say the least. Different camera angles seemed to show Hamel's swipe at the puck below the crossbar, but the replay officials deemed it was close enough to the crossbar to rule against the Sabres. "I think when you look at it that long and you take that much time, they had some indecision (the video judges)," said Ruff. "I don't know how you can rule it above or below. It's a call the referee makes." The Pens got off to a very quick start when Stephane Richer scored before the game was one minute old. It has become a very discerning trend of Sabres goalie Martin Biron to allow a very early goal. It seems to be happening much to frequently to Biron. The Sabres lost the faceoff in their zone and it came right to Richer, who took a slap shot through a maze of bodies and Biron's pads.

"It was one of those plays that works once a year, and they got lucky enough that it worked tonight," commented Biron about the setup for the early goal.

Biron must get over his early game jitters if the Sabres plan to mount any kind of playoff march in the second half of the season. Against Carolina on New Year's Eve, Biron gave up to Bates Battaglia and it was also at the 0:46 mark of the first period. The Sabres went on to lose that game. Three days later, Biron held on just a little longer as it took the Calgary Flames 2:38 to score. The Flames took that early lead and rode it to a 3-1 win.

After that first goal, Biron settled down and played a solid game until allowing a breakaway goal by Robert Lang . However, at the other end, Hedberg was putting on the show of his life. There were so many chances that Hedberg thwarted that fans must have thought he was the reincarnation of Dominik Hasek. Not to take anything away from the magnificent performance by Hedberg, but the Sabres have a real talent of making the opposing goalie look fabulous. They just couldn't bury their chances and time is definitely against the Sabres playoff hopes as they lose to a team that isn't setting the league on fire.

Not only does Hedberg have the Sabres number, but the Penguins have had it for the last three years. The Sabres rarely win against the Pens anymore, and it doesn't appear this trend will end any time soon.

"We approached this as a playoff game, and I think they did, too," said Hedberg. "You could see it was really tight, and we had to fight for every inch. It was a huge win for us, a big confidence builder."

With time running out and the Sabres pressing to get in position to pull Biron in favor of the extra attacker, Lang came down on a break towards Biron. As Lang pulled to Biron's right, the goalie went down and Lang put it in on the near side. It was not Biron's night, who had 16 saves.

Sabres Talk

The Sabres outplayed the Pens in all but one position, the most important one, goaltending.

"We missed a lot of great opportunities,"said Ruff. "We're in a position where we're going to lose some games because of goaltending. He stole the show. There were a few saves he made he didn't see. There were a few he looked behind him. It was his night."

The Sabres were not taking this loss lightly. It put them even further behind the 8-ball.

"It's a four-point game we had to have," said Chris Gratton. "Is it the end of our season? No. Can we get back into the playoffs? Yeah. We really have to hunker down, but this was a huge, huge game."

"It's awfully frustrating," continued Gratton, who has only 3 goals so far this season. "You think you're making good shots, and nine out of ten times those shots are going to go in. Tonight, from start to finish, they didn't even have a chance of going in. For the most part he squared up and covered everything, made it look easy."

Ruff has to somehow pull a rabbit out of his hat and get the Sabres ship out of troubled waters before it sinks completely out of the playoff race. It is going to be next to impossible.

"Instead of us bemoaning the fact we lost this game," put in Ruff, " it's over now. There was a lot of good in the game. The fact we didn't score is the biggest hurt of it all."

Meanwhile, the Penguins were rejoicing over one of their rare road victories.

"Hedberg made unbelievable saves that kept us in, and we got a few breaks at the right times," lauded Pittsburgh coach Rick Kehoe. "It started with the goaltender and right out.

"Every win is always a big plus. And as you guys know, the big guy's coming back," referred Richer about Lemieux. "It doesn't matter which way you look at it, the best player in the world is coming back in the lineup. It should be a plus."

The Star of the Show, Hedberg, had confidence coming into Buffalo that he owned this team.

"It felt good from the start," said Hedberg. "We've been fighting back from behind for pretty much the whole season. To get the first one on the second shift, I think everybody got a boost from it."

ESPN's Game Recap for more game details.

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