Dominik Hasek knows the feeling. That's what keeps him coming back after all these years. He's 46 years old and just finished his 28th professional season over three decades. Remember his son, Michael, just a little boy when Hasek arrived? He's 21 years old now, an upperclassman at Michigan State.
Hasek was a quirky cat throughout his career in Buffalo, but there was no disputing his obsession with winning a championship. It's why he played this year in the Kontinental Hockey League before losing in the first round of the playoffs. He plans to return to the KHL next season if he can sign with a team that can contend for a title. The guy lives for this time of year.
Look no further than Hasek for an example of one player making a difference. In 1999, he carried a team that finished in seventh place in the conference to the Stanley Cup finals. Hasek was back in his No. 39 sweater Saturday, receiving a standing ovation in HSBC Arena before a ceremonial faceoff prior to the game against Atlanta.
Heck, listening to him during a brief news conference with the pregame music cranking outside the door, you half expected the Dominator to chase Ryan Miller out of the Buffalo crease. And after Miller gave up two goals he would usually stop in his sleep, you couldn't help but wonder if Hasek could still help them.
"To get closer to the playoffs and be on the edge, and believe you can make it, you never know," Hasek said. "The teams are so close right now. It's not like it used to be. It seems like a team from eighth place can do it all the way. I think the Sabres are in great position. They must be motivated."
The Sabres sure looked motivated in an 8-2 victory over the Thrashers, one of the teams chasing Buffalo in the Eastern Conference. Today marks the first day of spring, and games are tumbling off the NHL schedule. It has been a long and trying season, but the Sabres managed to wedge themselves into a heated playoff race.
The pressure has been mounting.
Buffalo couldn't have asked for a better response than the one it had Saturday. The Sabres did what Hasek did. They dominated. They won more races, had much better goaltending, battled harder around the net, were more desperate and more opportunistic than Les Thrash.
Jason Pominville scored 24 seconds into the game, snapping home Tim Connolly's perfect pass to the bottom of the right circle. The Sabres had a 3-1 lead after the first period after Mark Mancari and Rob Niedermayer deflected shots from the point, a 5-2 advantage after Tyler Ennis' dandy goal in the second period.
Nobody needs to be reminded that Buffalo can be a tough town when its teams fail to meet moderate standards. At least the Sabres have been a source of intrigue. The Bills have been a lost cause for so long that today's teenagers can barely comprehend the euphoria that swept through town before their last playoff game.
The Sabres' ascension has stirred cautious optimism, but optimism nonetheless, going into the final three weeks. You can sense the heightened anticipation and nervous energy in the dressing room and beyond. Any honest player would relish the opportunity to play big games at this stage of the season.
"It's the best time of year. It's starting to get nice outside, and playoff time is coming around," Pominville said. "It has been a grind for us for a while because we dug ourselves a pretty big hole. It's especially [true] when you play teams like Atlanta, who's trying to catch us. It just builds the intensity."
Pominville has come to personify Buffalo's season. He was knocked out early, suffering a concussion that sidelined him for 19 games. He failed to play to his potential before finding his confidence and rediscovering his game. He had two goals and two assists on Jan. 1, when the Sabres started turning things around, and has scored 12 of his 18 goals since New Year's Day.
It's all in the past now. What matters is how they play from this point forward.
The Sabres have 11 games remaining and control their playoff destiny. Six more wins should be enough no matter how teams perform around them. Nobody should suggest they've made some heroic march into eighth place, but it's certainly infinitely more entertaining than the alternative.
Signs of playoff hockey were everywhere Saturday. The Sabres' dressing room was loose but quieter after their morning workout. Coach Lindy Ruff revealed a familiar smirk that often comes with his answers at this time of year. You couldn't help but be a little more jacked up, especially with Hasek in the building.
And, like he said, you never know.
"It was probably the most energy felt in this building in a long time," Ruff said. "It was fun. I didn't like the energy when they were getting breakaways, but I liked it when we were getting ours. When there's a game that has that many scoring chances and you score that many goals, it's great entertainment, especially when you win."