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There's an old adage in this town that says people don't get serious about the Sabres until the last down of the football season has been played.

If that's the case, the timing seemed about right Wednesday morning, when Dominik Hasek practiced with the Sabres and a lost hockey season began to get interesting again.

You could feel the anticipation in the air as Hasek took on the Buffalo shooters in breakaway drills. There was a palpable sense of excitement and possibility, in knowing the best goalie in the world was close to playing again.

"You did see that (there was) a little bit of a spark," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "The guys were taunting him when they scored the odd goal - although I thought he let them score. It's always good to have your star player back."

As the Sabres contemplate the final 33 games of the regular season, and the scary prospect of missing the playoffs, they have never needed him more.

In effect, the team is right back to where it was in the conference finals last spring, after Hasek sat out the first two games in Toronto with an injured groin. Eight months ago today, he played hurt in Game Three here and gave the Sabres the emotional jolt they needed to win the pivotal game of the series.

Even in his compromised state, his team needed him. It wasn't so much for his goaltending, but for the incalculable mental edge he provided to his team.

"Dom has an aura about him," defenseman Jay McKee said. "It's not just to us, but more so to opposing players. When he's on his game, everyone knows he can win games for us. If we're playing half-decent, we have a very good opportunity to win."

He gives them an edge even at half-strength. Hasek's groin is still hurt. He says he hasn't been healthy for a year. But he said he might play in a week. It was welcome news to a team groping for a competitive identity. The players are beyond caring whether they're perceived as an average team with a great goalie. All they know is they need Hasek.

"We never disputed the fact that we weren't as good without him as with him," said Dixon Ward. "Obviously, we're much better with our best player. I think everybody in the league is better with their best player, more so with a goalie. We miss him in a lot of areas.

"When we're in here facing Pittsburgh, and (Jaromir) Jagr's not in the lineup, it's a different outlook," Ward said. "It adds a whole other dimension to the game. It changes the way you approach it. It's the same way with Dom. It's no secret. People forget he's the best player in the world. He has been for the last five years, and when you take him out of the lineup, you're going to struggle some."

Rookie Martin Biron has been adequate. His 2.45 goals-against average is a shade above the league median. But that isn't good enough now. When Hasek is on top of his game, he can play to a 1.45 GAA for a two-month stretch. That's what the Sabres need now. It goes beyond numbers. It's impossible to measure the impact one Hasek save can have on a game, on an opponent - or on an entire playoff series.

"We know what he's capable of, and knowing that allows you to play a lot more loose and free," Michael Peca said. "Not careless, but loose and free. Obviously, it means a lot to us mentally and emotionally, and we know it affects other people emotionally as well."

"No question," Ward said. "We play a different style when he's in there. Marty's done a tremendous job for us. Dom makes the saves at key times that would kind of wake our team up - like a breakaway stop on the road early in the game, or a barrage on a power play that would keep you tied 0-0 or 1-1 after the first period. He would pull something out of his hat and let us gain the confidence during the game."

Hasek seemed confident he'd be back soon. But is he again coming back too soon? "I don't know," he said. "I don't even remember what it is to play healthy. For more than a year, I played injured or with big pain, but I want to help my teammates."

It's hard not to be skeptical. You never know quite what to believe with the guy. He said he was retiring and he's been waffling ever since. Maybe he wants to get some NHL games in so he can play in the All-Star Game without seeming selfish.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I think he's feeling the pressure to get back and help his team. He's a fierce competitor. He surely misses being The Man, the difference-maker on the ice. He also must be wondering if the groin will ever heal properly, and if he'll ever play without pain again.

That, more than the $7.5 million salary he'd make in 2000-2001, is why I believe Hasek is leaning toward coming back next season. The thought of retiring without playing another game healthy has to be eating away at him. If he's willing to play hurt now, it's because he learned in the Toronto series how much he means to his team, healthy or not.

Time is running short for the Sabres. Maybe John Rigas will actually provide the "tools" he promised last June. They could use a new body or two. Still, this is the same team that reached the finals last season and it might be unwise to bury them when Hasek's still around.

"We've been buried before," Ward said. "We've been buried individually and as a team. We're the kings of resurrection around here."

Ward laughed. He said he was looking forward to the rest of the season. Peca said the same thing. Who could blame them? The Dominator was in their heads, and the hockey season might finally be about to begin.

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