BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Hockey has thrown more than pucks at Buffalo goaltender Dominik Hasek. He's gotten adoration, millions of dollars, an Olympic gold medal, recognition as the league's MVP the past two years, even criticism.
One thing eludes him: The Stanley Cup.
Hasek has a place set aside in his heart for hockey's biggest prize. "Right next to the gold medal," he said Thursday.
The Sabres won the Eastern Conference championship and await the winner of Friday's Game 7 of the Western Conference final between the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars.
Hasek, almost recovered from the chronic groin injury that sidelined him for the first two games against Toronto in the conference final, is determined to scoop the only thing that's missing.
"He's hungrier than ever," Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley said. "Nothing would compare to winning this thing and it's nice to have him in there with that drive."
Hasek is the only goaltender in NHL history to twice be selected the league's MVP. He did so in each of the last two seasons and is a candidate for a third in a row. Last year he was voted top goalie for the fourth time in five years.
His greatest achievement was leading the Czech Republic to its first gold medal in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He earned the right to be called the world's best goalie after beating Patrick Roy and Canada 2-1 in the semifinal and shutting out Russia 1-0 for the gold.
Even as he runs out of things to win, it seems Hasek never runs out of things to prove. The Stanley Cup might quiet critics who question his heart and pain threshhold, not to mention filling a void in his career.
"A lot of us feel that there's always a little hole if you don't get it," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's going to feel that way if we don't accomplish what we set out to accomplish. You can't say it doesn't bother you if you don't win it."
Roy is the winningest goaltender in playoff history. Hasek rode the bench behind the other goalie he could face in the Stanley Cup final, Dallas' Ed Belfour, when both played for Chicago. Hasek had spent two seasons in Chicago when the Blackhawks traded him to Buffalo in August 1992.
"Eddie Belfour is a great goaltender and Patrick has won three Stanley Cups," Hasek said. "But it doesn't matter to me if we play Dallas or Colorado."
Each of the Sabres' three playoff series have pitted Hasek against another good goalie. Ottawa's Ron Tugnutt led the league's starters with a 1.79 goals-against average. Hasek, second with a 1.87 GAA, made 40 saves in a 2-1 victory in the opener of quarterfinal series against Ottawa.
"Dom won that first game on his own and since then has just made the key save," Buffalo's Joe Juneau said. "We don't need a guy who's going to steal a game every night. We just need key saves at the right time, and that's what Dom gives us."
Boston's Byron Dafoe ranks third among playoff goalies with a 2.03 GAA but couldn't beat Hasek's Sabres in the second round.
"Dafoe was in the running for the Vezina (trophy as top goalie) and really issued a personal challenge," Ruff said. "He thought he could outplay Dom."
The anticipated duel between Hasek and Toronto's Curtis Joseph in the conference final fizzled due to a groin injury that kept Hasek out for two games and Joseph's own shaky play.
Hasek bristles at the suggestion that he was tanking it.
"It was tough to go to the coach and tell him that I could not play, but I'm glad I made the decision," he said. "I could play hurt and maybe give up some bad goals and we could lose. I feel good about the decision I made."
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