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HASEK PASSES FIRST TEST IN PRACTICE NET

For most of the last three months, hockey fans in this town have been begging for the Sabres to make a move. You know, get some new blood and shake up their struggling lineup. Add a playmaking center. Add a defenseman. Add somebody.

Maybe the best move of all came Wednesday when a skinny man bulked up by Louisville goalie pads, a Louisville glove, a Louisville blocker and a Louisville turtleneck skated toward the goal crease on the Harbor Club end of Marine Midland Arena.

Yes, the Dominator was back.

Back for the NHL All-Star Game? Probably not. Back next season? Who knows? Back and coming soon to an arena near you? Definitely.

Dominik Hasek's return to the Sabres could be less than a week away.

The nameplate above his locker stall still reads, "Biron" but, barring any setbacks to his groin injury, Hasek could be available as early as Tuesday's home game against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He was on the ice for about an hour and 15 minutes Wednesday and showed no immediate problems.

"It's hard to say," Hasek said. "I want to stay every day more and more with my teammates. It's possible to play a game next week. It's hard to say after a practice."

Hasek skated with Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi and his former coach in the Czech Republic, Josef Bruk, for about 45 minutes before practicing with his teammates for nearly a half-hour. He stopped his first six shots before rookie Maxim Afinogenov beat him with a shot into the top corner.

The Dominator is expected to continue workouts today as the Sabres prepare for their game Friday night against the Ottawa Senators. He might play a game for the Rochester Americans, a possibility that will be further discussed, before he suits up for the Sabres.

"He handled that (practice) session pretty good," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He wasn't out there a long time, but it gave him a pretty good feel. . . . We'll just evaluate it every day."

Hasek, who turns 35 Friday, gave no indication whether he would return next season. He had announced over the summer he would retire after this season but apparently is thinking about coming back for another season after missing most of this one.

"It's a tough question," Hasek said. "It's more about my health right now. I want to play. I want to be healthy. It's hard to say because the season is completely different than I wanted it to be. My goal is to get back in net, help my teammates get to the playoffs and play well in the playoffs. I'll think about (next season) later."

The Dominator probably will not play in the NHL All-Star Game Feb. 6 in Toronto. He had been hinting for several weeks that he wanted to participate in the annual exhibition and was more direct Wednesday.

"If management tells me not to play, I won't go there," Hasek said. "Everybody asks me about the All-Star Game, but I don't care. My goal is to play in this building and on the road with the Buffalo Sabres."

There was speculation Hasek would play in the All-Star Game in order to obtain a contract bonus with Louisville. He signed a three-year contract with the company to sell equipment and apparel with the "Dominator" label.

A team source said the bonus with Louisville is for $5,000, pennies for a man making $7 million this season. He gets no bonus from the Sabres for playing in the exhibition.

"We can't risk an injury to Dom in a 20-minute exhibition," Ruff said. "We would love him to play. It's always great when you have someone who represents your team. But, we've said, he has to be able to practice and play for us first. We can't just stick him in there cold. If he ever got injured, it would be an impossible situation for us."

The Sabres' situation has been difficult enough since Hasek tore his groin during a game against the Florida Panthers Oct. 29 at Marine Midland Arena. He had been troubled with groin problems since last February. They caused him to miss 12 regular-season games and two playoff games last season.

Hasek underwent surgery during the summer. He said the procedure, which was performed by a German doctor against the advice of the Sabres' team physician, didn't help. He also admitted he came back too soon afterward.

Hasek had a 1.87 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage last season. He had a 3.03 GAA and .901 save percentage in nine games this year. Rookie Martin Biron has a 2.50 GAA and .905 save percentage in 34 games this season. Backup Dwayne Roloson has a 2.84 GAA and .884 save percentage in 14 games.

Biron has played admirably under the circumstances, but not well enough for a team accustomed to playing in front of Hasek, the five-time Vezina, two-time Hart trophy winner.

Buffalo has a 16-18-4 record without its star goalie and has slipped to 11th in the Eastern Conference with 33 games remaining.

The one thing Hasek provides more than anything is hope. The Sabres still have time to make the playoffs if he comes back soon and immediately plays well.

"The best shakeup for us wouldn't be a trade," defenseman Jay McKee said. "It would be to have Dom come back. There's no secret here. We have three great goalies in this room, but he's won a couple Hart trophies. He's heads above any goalie in the league. Obviously, with him, it could be a starting point for us. If he's ready to go, it would be like flipping the light switch on."

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