Move over, Santa Claus. Dominik Hasek is the new Mr. December.
The New York Rangers Friday became the fifth team this month to be blanked by Hasek, as the Sabres took a 3-0 decision before 18,595 in Marine Midland Arena.
Buffalo has won three of its last four games, all of which have been Hasek shutouts. The Sabres will try to continue their superb defensive play tonight when they play the Hurricanes in Carolina (7, Empire, 104.1 & 710).
"I would hate to say this is my best (stretch of play) but this month has been very good for me," Hasek said.
The National Hockey League's record book does not have a category for shutouts in a month, so NHL statisticians will be pouring over some old score sheets in the next few days to see when a goalie last had five shutouts in a month. Hasek himself has gone past his previous best of four, set in December 1993.
But by any standard in any era, Hasek is on an amazing roll. The veteran has started all 12 Sabre games in the month of December. He has allowed 18 goals in 684 minutes for a goals- against average of 1.73. Hasek has stopped 336 of 354 shots for a save percentage of .949. Buffalo has won six games in December, and all but one featured a Hasek shutout.
"He's unbelievable," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "I don't know how much more I can toot his horn."
As shutouts go, this one was almost routine. The Sabres played excellent team defense throughout the night. Hasek faced 28 shots, and few came on second and third chances off rebounds.
"This was one of my easiest shutouts," Hasek said. "They had maybe five or six chances, but not too many breakaways. I saw the puck really well."
Rangers' coach Colin Campbell added, "We didn't finish very hard. We had a couple of players making plays but other than that, we didn't have a lot of penetration tonight."
The Sabres did all the scoring they needed on a pretty play early in the second period. Matthew Barnaby took a pass from Michal Grosek and moved the puck over to Woolley, who had come in from the left point. Woolley beat Mike Richter from close range.
"They kind of left me alone on the left side," Woolley said. "Michal made a great pass to Matthew, and Matthew made a great pass to me. I didn't do any work."
After that, Buffalo played as if it was determined to hold the lead instead of adding to it. Neither side had many scoring chances as there were long stretches of play that were downright dull.
"It was a different game; I felt that out there as a player. There just wasn't much going on," Woolley said. "I'm glad I was on the side that was up, 1-0. It would be real tough to come back in a game like that."
"Veterans are supposed to lead, and we didn't have veterans leading," Campbell said. "We had veterans talking but not leading."
The Sabres tenaciously clung to the slim lead until about five minutes remained in the game. Then Dixon Ward ripped a shot past Richter off a two-on-one break for his first goal in 13 games.
"Fortunately we got the opportunity," Ward said. "Earlier in the game, we had a two-on-one and I should have kept the puck and I didn't. I took a little heat for that, so a pass was not in my thoughts at all when I got that one."
Grosek added an empty-netter for some more insurance in the last minute. When the buzzer sounded, Hasek had blanked the Rangers for the second time in six days.
"In the games we've played against them, we seem to get up for them more than the other games," coach Lindy Ruff said. "When you play people like (Pat) LaFontaine, (Wayne) Gretzky, and (Brian) Leetch, you're going against good hockey players. I think you play a little harder."
The Rangers had a 28-26 edge in shots. . . . The three stars were Hasek, Woolley and Ward. . . . Before the game, Dr. Walter Hoffman was given the J. Michael Duffett Award by the Sabres for contributions to amateur hockey in Western New York. Dr. Hoffman has been involved in Amherst youth hockey for more than 20 years. . . . The Sabres' open practice will be held in Marine Midland Arena on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The doors open at 10 a.m.; there is no admission charge.