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Hasek pursuing consistency

Welcome to the Church of Hasek. Donations in the form of pucks accepted nightly. Just shoot them at the net and they will be collected.

Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek has become something of deity in the NHL. Lightning broadcaster Bobby "The Chief" Taylor, a former goalie, calls Hasek the "single-most dominating player in hockey." But for really high praise _ "high" being the operative word here _ Lightning coach Jacques Demers called Hasek "God" after Hasek shut out the Lightning on Dec. 23.

"He's from another planet," Demers said.

And as goalies go, Hasek is ruling this planet. Two years ago, he became the first goalie since Jacques Plante in 1962 to win the league's MVP award. He won the award again last season.

The Sabres again are a team of muckers, grinders and role players, but might be the best bet to win the Eastern Conference simply because of Hasek.

"I've been around the game a long time and I've seen a lot of goalies, but Hasek is better than just about everyone I've seen," Demers said. "If I have to pick one, I have to go with (Colorado's) Patrick Roy because I won a Cup with Patrick in Montreal. Patrick Roy's won three Cups and that's what counts. But as soon as Dominik Hasek wins a Cup _ and he will in the next few years _ he will be right there with Roy."

For Demers, comparing someone to Roy is higher praise than calling someone "God."

And this god uses everything in his power to stop the puck, including his head.

"I am not afraid to stop the puck with my head," Hasek said. "I try to do it sometimes even in practice; not every day, but once in a while, I say to my teammates, shoot me in my head and I'll try to stop the puck. I am not afraid at all of the puck, so sometimes, if the shot comes at my head, it's an easier save to make with your head. Maybe the people think a different way, but for me, I do it with the head."

Maybe he's taken a few too many to the head recently. Hasek slipped a bit last week. He was bombed in starts against Ottawa and Anaheim and lost three straight games. But cut the man a break. He won back-to-back player of the week honors in December and in the third week, he was 3-0 with an 0.33 goals-against average and a .989 save percentage.

"It's been a great few weeks, but I think it's most important for a goalie to be consistent throughout the season," Hasek said just before the current fall.

Even with his recent slide, Hasek's numbers are better than last season's, when he won his second straight MVP trophy.

"You'd hate to say he's improved from last year, but he has," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "His record speaks for itself. His goals-against (1.92) is fabulous."

COFFEY BREAK: Remember a few years ago when Paul Coffey was traded to Hartford, then threw a pity party to get himself traded to Philadelphia so he wouldn't have to play for Whalers?

Funny how his attitude changed last week when he realized he's barely hanging on in this league. He was traded from Chicago to the Carolina Hurricanes, which, of course, used to be the Whalers.

"(Carolina GM) Jim Rutherford knows it had nothing to do with the people in Hartford or the players; otherwise he wouldn't have tried to get me back," Coffey said. "It was just a case of my being caught a little off guard and being traded by a team, and I really didn't want them to decide what team I go to. Also, at that time (owner Peter Karmanos) didn't really know where the team was going to be. And I just had a young baby. As it turned out, if I had stayed there I wouldn't have moved as much as I did. I'm just happy this organization liked me enough to try to get me back."

BURNED OUT: The Flames are looking to rent a goalie. Ken Wregget isn't 100 percent because of severe back spasms. Tyler Moss is out with a groin injury and Jean-Sebastien Giguere has a hamstring problem. That leaves only junior Tyrone Garner and the unorthodox Andrei Trefilov.

And that's not good.

ON THE BLOCK: The Oilers said no when the Lightning offered Mikael Renberg for offensive defenseman Janne Niinimaa, but that doesn't mean Niinimaa won't be traded. Edmonton has three other offensive defensemen and Niinimaa could draw a lot of interest since he has a three-year deal for a very affordable $4.5-million.

Don't be surprised if the Oilers make a pitch for Toronto goalie Felix Potvin and use Niinimaa as part of the package.

PARRISH THE THOUGHT: Florida's Mark Parrish is the early favorite for rookie of the year, but he has been demoted to the checking line. He broke a nine-game goal-less streak Wednesday and leads all rookies with 11, but he's not good enough these days to see quality ice time.

"He doesn't deserve to be on the top two lines right now," coach Terry Murray said. "Mark hasn't continued to score the way he did at the start of the year. So knock him down a little bit, maybe play him a little less in the offensive part of the game. We need our top two lines to score, and Parrish isn't scoring."

A FISTFUL OF GOALS: After a game-winning goal against the Rangers on Wednesday, Phoenix's Rick Tocchet needed three to become the first NHL player to score 400 and total more than 2,600 penalty minutes.

But he has some competition. If Dallas' Pat Verbeek can pick up 24 penalty minutes before Tocchet gets three goals, he'll become the first to reach the 400 goal/2,600 PIM milestone.

ODDS AND ENDS: One of the things wrong with hockey: The Kings entered the Christmas break nine games under .500 but only three points out of a playoff spot. The Oilers are looking for a defensive center who can win defensive faceoffs. Maybe they should look into signing Joel Otto, who's retired but just down the road in Calgary. Carolina's Gary Roberts and Philadelphia's Eric Lindros are the only players leading their teams in assists and penalty minutes.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.