Dominik Hasek sat in front of the giant-screen television in the family room of his suburban Buffalo home on Sunday night, watching the penultimate episode of a prime-time hockey soap opera. Hasek is such a spectacular talent—"best goaltender on the planet" is attached to his name so casually that it seems more a title than a description—that only he could dominate a game from his couch. The Sabres, behind the impeccable play of Hasek's understudy, Steve Shields, beat the Senators 3-0 at Ottawa's Corel Centre to tie their first-round playoff series at three games and force Game 7 on Tuesday. But it was the absence of Hasek, who had mildly sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in Game 3, that was the talk of the series and, in fact, the entire NHL. Hasek, who is expected to become the first goalie since Jacques Plante in 1962 to be named the league's Most Valuable Player, had picked up the Sabres by the scruff of their rough necks and carried them to first place in the Northeast Division. Now he had become a different kind of MVP: Mystifying, Vanishing, Peculiar.
Through six games the Sabres-Senators series didn't produce much in the way of stirring hockey, but it was the mother lode for pop psychologists. Among the lowlights of a confounding week: Hasek (pronounced HA-shek) missed a mandatory team meeting, announced that his knee injury would sideline him for the rest of the series, slept at an Ottawa player's house the night he got hurt, and physically attacked a reporter. "Obviously something's not been right with Dom the past month," one Buffalo player said. "We were concerned. We asked him what was wrong on a couple of occasions, and each time he said everything was fine."
On a club racked by tension between coach Ted Nolan and general manager John Muckler, there are more theories to explain Hasek's erratic behavior than there are goal scorers. Two of those theories—that Hasek has been drinking too much or has been upset by a feud with Nolan—trailed the goalie last week like a bad smell. Speaking to SI on his car phone as he drove from a friend's home to his house to watch the second and third periods of Game 6, an emotional Hasek addressed both issues.
"I don't have a [drinking] problem," he said. "That's a very surprising question. Two years ago I had a DWI [he pleaded guilty in April 1995 in Amherst, N.Y.]. But are they saying that now?"
When asked if he had been affected by the Sabres' management turmoil, he said, "No. These problems are, for sure, serious, but they are for the organization, not for me." (On April 22 Hasek told reporters that he would not talk about his relationship with Nolan until after the playoffs.)
Hasek, 32, says his difficulties are attributable to his knee injury, but his strange behavior started more than two weeks before he was hurt. In Boston on April 9, the day before Buffalo clinched first place, Nolan ordered a shooting drill that the Sabres occasionally use in practice. Suddenly Hasek bolted from the ice, knocking over a bucket of ice and throwing equipment around the FleetCenter dressing room. The coach followed Hasek into the room and asked him what was wrong. According to Nolan, Hasek said he was angry. "I asked Dom twice if I had said or done anything to upset him," Nolan says. "Both times he said, 'No.' Actually, the second time he really didn't say no. Dominik's a real quiet man, and he didn't respond. So I told him that if I had done anything, I apologized for it, but it was the last time I ever would, because I'm not going to apologize for something I don't know about."
That incident was the first in a series that pushed Hasek into the spotlight for things other than his brilliant goaltending.
•On April 21 Hasek missed a mandatory team meeting and breakfast and skipped an optional practice. That was unusual; Hasek's competitiveness is renowned, and he rarely misses optional workouts. Four days later Hasek phoned a sports talk show on radio station WGR in Buffalo to say that Nolan had given him permission a month earlier to skip morning meetings. Nolan confirmed that to SI last week but said he had announced on the team bus that attendance was required at the April 21 meeting. "Maybe Dom didn't hear me," Nolan said. "The meeting wasn't on the [team's] itinerary."
•During warmups before Game 3 in Ottawa, Hasek, who had played well in the Sabres' 3-1 opening-game victory and 3-1 Game 2 defeat, grew agitated when he repeatedly failed to stop the puck. At one point he whirled and smashed his stick against the crossbar. Hasek then skated out of his crease, and a posse of his teammates formed a wall and gently directed him hack to the net to continue practicing. As the arena lights dimmed for pregame festivities at the first home playoff match in the Senators' five-year history, Shields remained on the ice, taking shots in the dark from teammates so he could be ready to play if needed.
•When forward Sergei Zholtok scored Ottawa's first goal at 15:33 of the second period of Game 3, Hasek was leaning back on his knees in the crease. The goalie kicked out his left leg, then his right. He gave no indication that he had been injured. He did not wave a trainer onto the ice. He did not test the leg after scrambling to his skates. He simply skated to the bench and then headed down the tunnel to the dressing room with left wing Brad May in pursuit.