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HART-TO-HART TALK SURROUNDS HASEK AS SHUTOUTS MOUNT

Last season at this time, Dominik Hasek was trying to become the first goaltender since 1962 to win the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the National Hockey League. He succeeded.

Now he's trying to become the first goalie in history to win back-to-back Hart trophies. With only three weeks left in the regular season, he would appear to rank as no worse than the co-favorite with Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Hasek will have a chance to do some more "campaigning" tonight when the Sabres play the Red Wings (7 p.m., Empire, Radio 104.1 FM & 710).

"It's a surprise to hear my name mentioned for the Hart Trophy after my bad start. I played poorly then," Hasek said. "I just want to do my best. Jagr, (Teemu) Selanne, (Martin) Brodeur -- they have the same chance as I do."

It looks to be another odd year in the voting for the Hart Trophy, which is done by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Traditionally the voters have leaned toward offensive players who had big years for winning teams, but Hasek overcame that bias last season.

The only player who fits the classic criteria this season is Jagr, who is leading the league in scoring with 90 points through Friday's games. He's taken over the leadership role of the team from the retired Mario Lemieux, and the Penguins are leading the Northeast Division by a comfortable margin.

However, Jagr's credentials are not overwhelming, and the Penguins are fifth in the overall standings.

That could open the door for Hasek, who statistically is having about as good a season this year as last. Hasek's showcase statistic this season is shutouts. He already has 12, and only two goalies since 1930 have had more shutouts in a season: Tony Esposito's 15 in 1969-70, and Harry Lumley's 13 in 1953-54. Hasek still has 11 games to add to his total.

Hasek's goals-against average is better than last season (2.12 vs. 2.27). Hasek's save percentage is up to .931 after Friday's shutout of the Edmonton Oilers. That's .001 ahead of last season, and he has a good-sized lead in the category.

Hasek's biggest drawback might be Buffalo's position in the standing. The Sabres are above .500, but they are not going to win the division. The bias toward players from the league's top teams might hurt.

Selanne of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim might be the only other player to figure at the top of the voting. Selanne has had a remarkable season, scoring 50 goals despite the loss of linemate Paul Kariya for most of the season. However, the Mighty Ducks are only two points from last place in their conference, and it is difficult for a player from a non-playoff team to win the Hart. Lemieux (1988) is the only player in the last 38 years to do that.

Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils has a goals-against average of 1.74, which would be the lowest in the NHL since 1940. However, he trails Hasek in save percentage and shutouts. Brodeur also is facing an average of only 22.9 shots per 60 minutes of play, compared to Hasek's average of 30.6 shots.

Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche is having a solid season on a good team, but his credentials aren't as sound as Jagr's. The Dallas Stars, the league's current point leaders, are without a player ranked in the league's top 20 in scoring.

That leaves Hasek and Jagr. Sabre defenseman Jason Woolley played with Jagr last season and Hasek this season, and he has some advice for the voters.

"I've got to go with Dom," he said. "It's a tough call, because Jagr is putting up the numbers. But when you watch Dom day after day, you realize he's the best player in the league."

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