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Sabres Central

Fit to be tied
By Rick Anderson
January 6, 2001

Sergei Berezin's shot gets deflected off the stick of Dominik Hasek in the first period. Berezin would later score on Hasek.
AP Photo/David Duprey]

Does this really have to end? That's what the 18,690 fans at HSBC Arena were asking themselves when the two game mini-series between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs finally came to a dramatic close. Mimicking the Presidential election recently held in the United States, a winner has yet to be determined. In two of the most highly-entertaining games this season, the two teams played to their second straight draw as they battled to a 3-3 deadlock.

The Leafs and Sabres have had a natural geological rivalry dating back to 1970 when Buffalo entered the National Hockey League. There have been some memorable games and series by these two arch rival hockey squads, including the 1998 Eastern Conference championship. But not many have reached the intensity and pure entertainment value that these past two games have provided.

"It was a high-intensity game. Both teams had some chances," said Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek. "We were closer to win, I think. We cannot be happy with a tie."

And the winner is...

Why can't all NHL hockey games be this exciting? In two wildly enthralling games, played in two different countries in 72 hours, the votes are still being tabulated. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is petitioning for a recount. After 130 minutes of dazzling hockey, the two teams must go their separate ways until meeting again in Toronto on January 20.

"When you're trying to fight for first overall in the conference you're going to have emotions running high," said Leafs forward Darcy Tucker. "Both teams wanted to win this one really bad and it was a really entertaining hockey game."

The Sabres, who were hoping to gain on the Maple Leafs before the series began, gained nothing. The Ottawa Senators turned out to be the real winners in this home-and-home matchup. It was the best scenario for the Sens, as all three teams were neck and neck in the Northeast title race. Ottawa has nudged in front of the other two horses by a point in the race to the finish line.

Leafs on fire

The Sabres opened the scoring but had to claw back twice to tie the game. Toronto seemed to dominate the majority of the game. They outshot the Sabres 25-17 and had more opportunities to put this one away, especially in the overtime when Dave Manson clanked a shot off the right post. The puck cleanly beat Hasek and only his exterior equipment saved him from an embarrassing loss.

Speak about goalie interference, what do you call this? In the first game of the Sabres- Leafs miniseries, a goal was taken away from Chris Gratton because he stood in front of Curtis Joseph. Here Dominik Hasek is clearly interfered with by Mats Sundin as he scores against the Sabres goalie. Dmitri Kalinin (45) attempts in vain to clear the crease.
AP Photo/David Duprey]

"It was about six inches above the ice, hit the end of my stick right over my pad and hit the post," articulated Hasek. "It could've been a fluky goal, but I'm glad it hit my post."

Notice how Hasek said "my post?"

Eric Boulton started the Sabres off on the right foot when he sent Rhett Warrener a pass and the Sabres defenseman broke down the right side. Warrener took a shot on net and Denis Hamel tipped the shot past Glen Healy. Healy was the surprise starter as Curtis Joseph had come down with the flu. The goal came at 7:34 of the first period.

In the first game between the two teams, the Sabres were denied a goal when Chris Gratton was ruled to have interfered with Joseph as he stood in the crease blocking the Leafs' goalie vision. Toronto tied the game on Friday on a goal that also could have been disallowed as Mats Sundin flew into the crease, was falling on top of Hasek as Gary Roberts' shot went off Sundin's skate and into the net. Where Gratton only blocked Joseph's view, Sundin not only impeded Hasek's chance of making the play by falling on top of him, but he also redirected the puck with his skate. According to the way the referees are interpreting the rules the past year and a half, those "infractions" are being ignored. In the first game the refs go by the rule book to the letter, the next game they throw the book in the garbage. Consistency in enforcing the rules has been a stickler to on-ice officials for years and has Ruff scratching his head about what rules will be in effect in every game the Sabres play.

Dominator's Dilemma

Hasek is in a groove. He now has a set pattern of playing solid hockey every other game. Last Friday, he shutout the Senators. The next game he played, the Dominator was tagged for 4 goals, some of them on the soft side. Next game he plays, Hasek was once again in top form as he only gave up one tally to the Leafs in the first game of the miniseries. This Friday's game with the Leafs, Hasek was in the lower position of his see-saw pattern. Hasek would allow two goals that in his glorious past would have been saves.

Four minutes after Sundin tied the game, Hasek allowed a goal that even average goalies have no trouble stopping. Sundin hit a streaking Jonas Hoglund, who came down the middle and shot a 20-foot wrist shot that hit Hasek right in the pads. Somehow, the puck trickled through and made the back of the net. Obviously not one of the Dominator's classic moments.

The Leafs scored their final goal of the game on a shot that Hasek would like back. Thomas Kaberle took a shot and it came out to Sergei Berezin standing in the bottom of the left faceoff circle. Berezin's blast got through an opening that Hasek left under his arm and hit the back of the net. In Hasek's former Vezina Trophy years, he would have had that area blocked.

This leaves the Sabres and Hasek the problem of dealing with reality. The season is almost half over and Hasek has yet to regain the form that won him five Vezina Trophies. The reality of the situation is that Hasek is feeling the effects of growing old. That along with his former groin problems and other ailments, and this old grey horse just ain't what he used to be. This may be as good as it gets for the Dominator. Hasek is still a good goalie and can be a huge factor in the Sabres drive to the playoffs. However, the Sabres have to come to the realization that they cannot count on him to steal as many games as he has in the past. All good things must come to an end. Now is the time to get Marty Biron more playing time. This will give Hasek needed rest that will help him in the playoff drive and also give Biron much needed experience.

Vintage Leafs Combo

It was truly shades of Leafs from yesteryear. Back around 1993, Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk were a terror on the ice for Maple Leaf opponents. Friday night, the combo turned the tables on the Leafs. With Jay McKee flying down the left side, he spotted Gilmour and fed him the pass. Number 93 sent the puck that seemed be controlled by radar through a maze of players right on Andreychuk's stick. Big Dave was all alone and slipped it past Healy to tie the game at 2 apiece. Even the huge throng of Leafs fans on hand had to give the former Toronto stars applause for that vintage Maple Leaf highlight clip from the past.

Alexei Zhitnik gets taken down as Adam Mair tries to pass the puck in the first period.
AP Photo/David Duprey]

"It's one of his strengths," Andreychuk praised his former Leafs teammate. "He sees the ice so well. When we played in Toronto, it happened a lot."

With the goal, Andreychuk tied the great Guy LaFleur for the 15th spot as the NHL's top career goal score. Another milestone for the two former Leaf greats was that it marked Gilmour's 1,300th game in the NHL.

"Doug definitely had the intensity," said Andreychuk. "He's feeling good and it was like a playoff atmosphere. Tonight was a game where he rises to the occasion."

Gilmour, who has been hampered with back and pelvic ailments all season, seemed to finally show some of his old self against his former team. He also helped set up the final goal of the game. Gilmour did some fancy skating to get in position to put a shot on Healy. Sundin cleared the puck right onto Alexei Zhitnik's stick. Zhitnik, who has had a problem keeping his hard shots from the point on net and in the rink, has adjusted his shot recently. Instead of trying to get the most velocity on his shot, Zhitnik has slowed the shot down some to get more accuracy. The result has been more shots on goal. Friday, Zhitnik scored his 5th of the season when his "blast" got through a screened Healy and the post.

"I was shooting low, but it went higher" Zhitnik explained. "It was pretty hard, but it wasn't like I was closing my eyes. It was a good shot."

The Sabres are hoping to see more of those slow-mo shots from the Zhitman for the rest of the season.

Gilmour was named the first star in the game. It has been a rough road for the injury-plagued Sabres center. He was upset when he was hauled down in front of Healy during overtime. He got up and complained to the refs, raising his arms up in frustration. Gilmour also came to the defense of Maxim Afinogenov after Afinogenov was temporarily injured when Sundin cross-checked him n the back. Gilmour had set up Afinogenov with a great pass and Mad Max got off a shot that forced Healy to make a spectacular save on to prevent the Sabres from winning.

"He (Afinegonov) made a good play," said Healy . "He got it up and I squeezed it with my arm and my blocker."

After Sundin's check, Afinogenov lay motionless on the ice as Gilmour mixed it up with Sundin, Bryan McCabe and Berezin. Kalinin also entered the mix. This all transpired with only 45 ticks left on the clock in overtime.

Gilmour was apparently upset over the shoddy officiating, especially several transgressions against him that were not called. He didn't answer the call of being named the game's first star and immediately bolted from the locker room after changing to his street clothes, refusing to talk to reporters.

Zebra Stripes

Ah yes, the zebras. They were in true form Friday night, not calling much of anything after the mid point of the game. Referees Dan Marouelli and Bill McCreary had to hear the wrath of both Sabres and Leafs fans as they allowed each team to take many liberties. One time, the Sabres net went off the moorings and Hasek quickly set it back. The refs blew the whistle, much to Hasek's displeasure. Later on in the game, the Sabres net clearly went off its moorings, but the play was allowed to continue, with the Leafs swarming around the net. They play continued for about 25 seconds before one of the refs got the whistle unstuck from his back pocket and stopped the play.

Border Wars

Ever since the Sabres beat the Maple Leafs in 1998 to claim the Eastern Conference championship, the rivalry has intensified even more, if that's at all possible. Leaf fans have crossed the border separating the U.S. and Canada by the busloads to fill nearly half of Buffalo's hockey arenas since Punch Imlach became the Sabres first coach in 1970. The contests between the two teams is not only on the ice, as fans have their own battles in the stands. Mostly it is of a friendly nature, as supporters of the two teams try to out-chant each other.

Friday's game continued the friendly competition between Sabres and Leafs fans for bragging rights for the Peace Bridge Cup. Neither side was able to take home the trophy. There are only two games remaining between rivals, January 20 and March 20.

Sabres Talk

Toronto broke a three-game Buffalo losing streak with the tie. The last time the Leafs have won in HSBC Arena was Buffalo on Feb. 17, 1999.

Maple Leafs backup goalie Glenn Healy, makes a great save with his catching mitt. Chris Gratton (77) puts the heat on with Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle coming to help out his goalie.
AP Photo/David Duprey]

"We'd like to have two wins and it's better than two losses," said Healy. "This building has been nothing but a nightmare for us, so a point, we'll take it."

"Good rivalries get the blood moving a little bit," said Leafs coach Pat Quinn. "I'm sure it was fun to watch for the people in the building tonight."

"Tonight and Wednesday night, terrific to watch and terrific to be involved in. Maybe those were the just results at the end of the night."

With the tie, the Leafs are now in first place in the Northeast Division, one up over the Sens and three in front of the Sabres. Toronto now has 49 points midway through the regular season.

"We're where we were last season (49 points at the halfway mark) but we haven't played that well," Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said. "If we keep playing the way we're playing right now, we'll surpass that 100-point barrier. Every line going out there is playing with a lot of desire. Now we can't have a letdown, we have to keep pouring it on."

Ruff contemplated on how the Sabres would have fared if they had capitalized on some of their glorious opportunities.

"We had seven 2-on-1s in the game and I don't believe we had a shot on goal," Ruff said. "The only way you can hurt a team if they start stepping up like that is to take advantage of the situations."

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