Goalie Dominik Hasek grabbed a slice of National Hockey League history Wednesday night, equaling a record set almost 69 years ago in the Buffalo Sabres' 3-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators.
A New Year's Eve crowd of 15,636 at Marine Midland Arena saw Hasek register his sixth shutout of December, establishing a modern-era league record for shutouts in a month. He equaled the six shutouts registered by George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens in both January and February 1929.
Since Hainsworth's era, the most shutouts registered by an NHL goalie in a month was five by Tony Esposito of the Chicago Blackhawks in February 1974 and by Jim Carey of the Washington Capitals in March 1996.
Plagued by slow starts all season, the Sabres grabbed the early advantage on a power-play goal by Randy Burridge at 9:26, then left the heroics to Hasek and Michael Peca.
Peca scored twice short-handed, his ninth and 10th goals. One came in the first period and the other in the third, but the man of the hour was Hasek.
Hasek admitted that he had no idea who Hainsworth was until his approach to the Hockey Hall of Famer's long-standing record became news this week.
"I was thinking about it, but it was not our goal before the game," Hasek said after he notched his 13th victory of the season and his seventh shutout, which tied Ed Belfour of the Dallas Stars for the league lead.
"It's kind of incredible when you go 7-7-1 (in December) with six shutouts," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who called the team's performance "workmanlike."
The shutout was truly earned by Hasek, who made 36 saves, including 15 in the second period and 12 in the third.
With Hasek on the cusp of NHL history, the Sabres picked up two penalties in the last 3:25 that gave the Senators power-play opportunities. The first, a tripping call against Alexei Zhitnik put Ottawa on a two-minute power play. Then Richard Smehlik was called for high-sticking with 1:26 to go and the Sabres finished the game short-handed.
Still, the Senators, who were 0-6 on the power-play for the game, could not break through.
In fact, the Sabres got their third goal on a breakaway by Peca on the Zhitnik penalty and Dixon Ward nearly scored short-handed for Buffalo on the Smehlik penalty with a little more than a minute to go.
The last shot Hasek faced was a slap shot from the right point by Senators defenseman Lance Pitlick with about 11 seconds left. Hasek deflected that into the corner and Ottawa did not get another look at the net.
Hasek outdueled Ottawa's Ron Tugnutt, who is ahead of "The Dominator" in the NHL's goals-against and save-percentage standings. Tugnutt, who shut out Buffalo twice last April in the regular season and once more in the playoffs and registered a 3-0 victory at the Corel Centre Dec. 6, faced 29 shots, stopping 26.
Hasek was the game's first star, Peca the second, then came defenseman Jay McKee, who played a strong game after being recalled Wednesday from Rochester to fill in for defenseman Darryl Shannon (bruised knee).
With all the talk about getting off to a strong start after falling behind, 2-0, Monday night in a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, Ruff was worried about his team being too uptight at the start.
"The last thing we said before we came out of the dressing room was let's have some fun," the coach said. "We can't be uptight."
Burridge's power-play goal, his first score since Nov. 22 against the New York Islanders, gave Buffalo the early advantage against Tugnutt, who has become a Sabres nemesis.
The early lead was important, Ruff said.
"Getting the lead in this league now is an unbelievable stat, especially in your own building," Ruff said. The Sabres are now 11-6-0 when they score first, 3-13-6 when they yield the first score. Ottawa is 10-3 when it scores first and 8-15-2 when the opponent grabs the initial advantage.
"That (the early goal) made it much easier for me," Hasek said. "Everybody was talking about a fast start."
Hasek was at his best in the second period, when eight of the Senators' shots came on three full power plays.
"In the second period when we were killing penalties he made five or six excellent saves," Ruff said.
Five of Ottawa's shots on goal in that period were by defenseman Igor Kravchuk, who had six in the game.
"No doubt, he's the best goalie in the league," Ottawa coach Jacques Martin said of Hasek. "You need to get a lot of traffic in front of him."
Peca's first goal was a thing of beauty. Killing a penalty against Smehlik, Buffalo cleared the puck into the Ottawa zone. Tugnutt left his crease to play the puck near the right boards and lifted a pass toward center ice.
Peca picked the puck out of the air, knocked it down and suddenly found himself behind Tugnutt with an empty net to shoot at. He wasted no time and hit the twine even though it was a blind shot from the lower edge of the circle. It went inside the left post with about four inches to spare from the difficult angle.
"I knew he (Tugnutt) was out of the net and I was able to judge where I was by looking down at the faceoff circle," Peca said. "More important than getting the short-handed goals was shutting down their power play."
It's been a long time since Burridge has been in the spotlight. He has been a healthy scratch in six of the last nine games, including the previous three.
"It was nice to be in the lineup again," Burridge said. "I got a break, the puck bounced for me and I was able to take advantage of it."
The victory moved Buffalo into a tie with Florida for 11th place in the overall Eastern Conference standing at 34 points each. The Sabres return to action Friday night against the Colorado Avalanche at Marine Midland Arena.