LCS Hockey: Born Again
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April 22, 2018
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LCS Top 100: No. 10

(Due to computer problems, I'm way behind in the hockey writing. Still need to do the final four players in the countdown. But we'll start rolling out the Top 10 with one player each day until I catch up. Shall we?)

10. Dominik Hasek: Before conquering the NHL, Hasek dominated Czechoslovakian hockey, being named the premier league's top goaltender five times and the top player on three occasions. But when he finally ventured to North America in 1990, the 25-year-old Hasek couldn't stick with the Chicago Blackhawks and actually spent parts of two seasons with the Indianapolis Ice of the IHL.

Hasek saw only five games with the Hawks his first year and struggled with the Ice in year two, going 7-10-3 with a 3.56 goals-against. Hardly impressive numbers for an elite-level goaltender. Hasek actually contemplated bailing on his NHL dream and heading back home to reclaim his confidence. But in January 1992, Mike Keenan called Hasek to the big club. Good decision.

Hasek served as Eddie Belfour's primary backup the rest of the season and went along for the ride as the Hawks tore through the playoffs and reached the Stanley Cup Finals against Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With the Hawks down 3-0 in the series, Hasek replaced a shaky Belfour in Game Four and nearly managed to prolong the inevitable only to fall 6-5 on home ice. Even though he allowed four goals on 25 shots in relief, Hasek was beyond spectacular, making a series of miraculous saves on Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr to announce his arrival as a potential star.

Chicago decided to stick with Belfour, who already had a Calder Trophy and a Vezina on his resume, and shipped Hasek to the Buffalo Sabres for Stephane Beauregard and a 4th-round Draft pick. Best thing to happen to Buffalo since the chicken wing.

Hasek didn't exactly fall into the starting gig, though. He had to compete with Grant Fuhr and Darren Puppa for playing time in 1992-93, winning only 11 times in 28 appearances. Hasek didn't seize control of the starting job until the following year when he posted 30 wins and led the NHL in save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (1.95)

That 1993-94 campaign ushered in the era of The Dominator. Hasek would lead the league in save percentage for six consecutive seasons, claiming two Hart Trophies and five Vezinas. He'd add a sixth Vezina in 2000-01, which turned out to be his final year in Buffalo. The Sabres shipped the 37-year-old Hasek to Detroit, where he joined a team loaded with Hall of Famers to win his first of two Stanley Cups, although the second came in a backup role.

There's never been a more unorthodox goaltender than Hasek. At a gangly 6-1, 166 pounds, he seemed uncoordinated and had no discernible style. He just stopped pucks. Hasek's two best assets were his remarkable quickness and his freakish flexibility. He put contortionists to shame, twisting and stretching his body like a $1000 hooker. He was the first netminder to regularly cover pucks with his blocker hand, and he also pioneered the flop-and-pray technique of dropping his blocker on the ice, rolling onto his right shoulder, and then slapping his left arm flat while pinwheeling his legs over his head like he stepped on a wet banana. Worked every time. I'm just amazed he could move at all with that horseshoe up his ass.

But Hasek was far too successful over far too many years to be considered lucky. He was simply the most dominant goaltender in NHL history, capable of winning games all by himself with little if any support. During his heyday in Buffalo, Hasek used to be so intimidating during practice, his teammates would often have to resort to 5-on-0 drills to try and score. He almost single-handedly carried the Sabres to a Stanley Cup in 1999, only losing out on an illegal goal. Thanks, Brett Hull. But his best performance came one year earlier at the 1998 Olympics when he backstopped an undermanned Czech squad to the Gold Medal, allowing just six goals in six games. Hasek was the best player in the world at the time.

Hasek's career .922 save percentage ranks first all-time, and he could easily be higher on the list, but he's got a couple strikes against him. First, he couldn't move the puck to save his life. It looked like an Abbott and Costello routine whenever he left the crease. He displayed the same awkwardness in dealing with teammates. Several squabbles marred his time in Buffalo and tarnished his reputation, pegging him as an overly sensitive prima donna. Quitting on the Senators only confirmed what everybody already knew.

But if you can forget about the goofiness and his unpredictable nature, Hasek could easily be taken first overall in the ol' mythical pick-up game scenario. He was that good.


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