The Buffalo Sabres hadn't won a playoff series in a decade. The St. Louis Blues were happy just to have made the playoffs. Both were lambs prepared for the slaughter, fourth-place teams with little hope of success. But last week the slaughter of the lambs was postponed indefinitely, as the Sabres and the Blues, spurred on by spectacular goaltending, pulled off giant upsets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Grant Fuhr, the man who backstopped the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990, was at his acrobatic best for the Sabres, who skewered the Adams Division champion Boston Bruins in a shocking four-game sweep. And Curtis Joseph, a little-known net-minder who was nearly sacrificed by the Blues as free-agent compensation two years ago, spun zeroes for eight consecutive periods in St. Louis's equally shocking sweep of the Norris Division champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"If Curtis Joseph continues to play like this," said Chicago coach Darryl Sutter, blinking back tears after Sunday's series-ending 4-3 overtime defeat in St. Louis, "anything can happen. It just did."
Sutter can commiserate with his brother, Boston coach Brian Sutter, who was the most frustrated man in Buffalo after Fuhr stonewalled the Bruins. "If Fuhr's not standing on his ear, we win," Sutter said. "He's a world-class goalie. What can you do?"
You can lose. And lose. And lose. Fuhr was knocked out of Game 4 last Saturday night with a strained right knee, but the Bruins apparently couldn't get him out of their minds. Backup Dominik Hasek played like the master, and the Sabres came from three goals behind to prevail 6-5 in overtime and send the crowd at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium into a broom-heaving frenzy.
With all due respect to Roger Crozier, Fuhr may soon be recognized as the best goalie in Buffalo history. And he has only been in town since Groundhog Day, when the Sabres traded high-scoring wing Dave Andreychuk, goalie Daren Puppa and a first-round draft pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs to get him. Buffalo coach John Muckler, for whom Fuhr had played in Edmonton, relentlessly lobbied general manager Gerry Meehan to make the deal. To win a playoff series you have no business winning, Muckler argued, you need a goalie who knows how to steal a few big games. "The price was high," says Muckler, "but we got what we needed."
Fuhr, at 30, isn't as dominant or as carefree as he once was. He's on his third team and his second messy divorce, and the 60-game suspension he received during the 1990-91 season for using an illegal drug, reportedly cocaine, still casts a shadow over his accomplishments. Nonetheless, there's no denying his 77-32 playoff record. "This is my time of year," says Fuhr. "This is when I have the most fun. You play 84 games to get to the playoffs, so you might as well enjoy them once you get here."
The Sabres were hardly enjoying themselves before the start of the Boston series. They had lost their last seven regular-season games to finish with a 38-36-10 record and 86 points, 23 fewer than the Bruins. Muckler and Meehan were sharpening their knives, privately blaming each other for the impending debacle. The players, embarrassed by their performance, were caught up in the gloom. "We were dreadful," Fuhr says. "We lacked enthusiasm. We lacked emotion. And it showed."
Then the curtain went up, and Fuhr stopped everything the Bruins threw at him. Inspired, the Sabres took the first two games in Boston. In Game 3 in Buffalo, Fuhr stopped flurry after flurry from Bruin sharpshooters Adam Oates, Cam Neely and Joè Juneau. His reflexes and glove seemed as fast as ever. At one point in the third period, after diving to fend off a point-blank shot by Neely, Fuhr did a backward somersault to get back on his skates. The Sabres won 4-3 in overtime.
His teammates are duly impressed. "He's the best goalie I've ever faced, the best I've ever seen, and he's playing better now than he ever has," says Buffalo center Pat LaFontaine. "I'm glad he's on our side."
Fuhr, a scratch golfer who has taken a few whacks at the Canadian pro tour and hopes to take a few more when he retires, quickly settled in after the trade, purchasing a home just off the golf course at the Country Club of Buffalo. By his own admission he has developed quite a taste for Buffalo cuisine, i.e., chicken wings. Judging by his spare tire, he's not kidding. He likes the town, and he's planning to stay awhile. "I figure I'll play five or seven more years," he says, apparently ruling out six. "I still have a few more people I want to torment."
Fuhr's knee ought to be shipshape when the Sabres take on the survivor of the Quebec Nordique-Montreal Canadien series (page 36). He definitely has big aspirations. On the rear portion of his mask he recently had an artist paint five miniature Stanley Cups, like notches on the handle of a gun. "It's a reminder to me," he says. "But mostly it's a reminder to everyone else." His unspoken message: There's room for more.
So far, the back of Joseph's mask is virgin territory. Joseph was amused to hear about Fuhr's headgear. "Maybe I should put five little baby bottles on mine," he says while balancing his 16-month-old daughter, Madison, precariously on his lap in his Manchester, Mo., home. "Or how about the last five diapers I changed?"
CuJo, as his teammates call him, is about as far from being a mad dog as a person can be, although Tim Cheveldae, the Detroit Red Wing goalie, might beg to differ. In the midst of a melee earlier this season in St. Louis, Joseph pounded Cheveldae into submission at center ice in one of the unlikeliest fights in NHL history. "I've got it on tape," Joseph says. "Want to see?"
If the Blues meet the Wings—who, at week's end, were tied 2-2 with the Maple Leafs—in the Norris Division finals, don't expect a reprise. The former combatants have buried the hatchet. Cheveldae has even invited Joseph to speak at his goalie school in Detroit. The way things are going, Joseph ought to think about opening a school of his own. He could teach courses in patience and perseverance, not to mention genealogy.
Growing up he was known as Curtis Joseph, but legally he was Curtis Munro, the name on his birth certificate. Five days after he was born in a Toronto hospital 26 years ago this week, his unwed 17-year-old mother, Wendy Munro, handed him to a nurse who had befriended her. He was raised by the nurse, Jeanne Joseph, and her husband, Harold, and most of the time he used their last name. He didn't officially change it until he signed with the Blues in 1989. "It was a big decision for me," he says.
Many adopted children want to find their biological parents, and Joseph, with the help of his adoptive mom and dad, did. He visited with his mother, who lives in a Toronto suburb, three years ago; he met his real father, Curtis Nickle, in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first time this year. Joseph also discovered that he has a large extended family, including three uncles on his father's side, and a half-brother and a half-sister on his mother's side. The Christmas card list maintained by Joseph and his wife, Nancy, keeps getting longer and longer.
"I didn't have very many relatives to start with," he says. "Now I do. We're not close friends or anything, but maybe, eventually, we will be."
Joseph figures if he waits long enough, good things will happen. A late bloomer, he didn't attract any interest from NHL scouts while he was in high school, so he did a postgraduate year at a Saskatchewan prep school. It paid off. He was offered a scholarship to Wisconsin, where he was all-everything as a freshman in 1988-89. As an unrestricted free agent he was suddenly very popular with NHL teams. He chose the Blues, with whom he signed a four-year, $1.1 million contract.
Two mediocre seasons later, St. Louis was ready to send him along with former Blues forward Rod Brind' Amour to the New Jersey Devils, who were owed compensation because the Blues had signed restricted free-agent forward Brendan Shanahan. At the time New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello called Joseph "an average, overpriced goalie...of no use [to the Devils]." In what was then considered a disaster for the Blues, an arbitrator awarded All-Star defenseman Scott Stevens to New Jersey instead. "I realized it was a business decision," Joseph says. "I was very expendable."
Not anymore. He has started each of the Blues' last 26 games, and they have made a Jekyll and Hyde transformation from deplorable to more than respectable. Unlike Buffalo, which had no competition for the fourth and last playoff berth in the Adams Division, St. Louis had to come from way behind to catch the Minnesota North Stars in the Norris Division, and the Blues didn't lock up a playoff spot until the final day of the season. "It's almost as if we've been playing playoff hockey for a couple of months," Joseph says. St. Louis finished with 85 points, the fewest of any playoff team and 21 points fewer than the Blackhawks had.
The more shots Joseph faces, the better he plays. In Game 2 at Chicago Stadium, the first of his back-to-back shutouts, he turned away 47 shots. In Game 3, before a Hawk-hating crowd at the St. Louis Arena, he stopped 34. Jeremy Roenick, the Blackhawks' leading scorer, openly exhorted his frustrated teammates to put Joseph in traction, and a few of them tried. The result, of course, was more of the dumb penalties that killed Chicago throughout the series.
The Hawks, swept in the Stanley Cup finals last season by the Pittsburgh Penguins but favored by many observers to get that far this year, seemed determined to shoot themselves in the foot. At the end of the first period of Game 3, hulking defenseman Chris Chelios made a helter-skelter run at Joseph. "I skated around him and kept going toward the dressing room," Joseph says. "I figured that would really piss him off."
Not half as much as the 10-minute misconduct penalty Chelios received from referee Dan Marouelli. The trend continued. Thanks to Chicago's relentless stupidity, the first three St. Louis goals in Game 4 came with a man advantage.
On Sunday the Blackhawks finally ended Joseph's scoreless-period streak when Brent Sutter beat him on a shot from the slot three minutes into the second. Joseph had held the Blackhawks without a goal for 174 minutes, shattering a St. Louis playoff record previously held by Hall of Famer Jacques Plante. It's a safe bet that Blues fans never bowed to Plante and chanted, "We're not worthy!" after a big save, as they did in homage to Joseph on Friday and Sunday. One fan carried a sign that proclaimed, ONLY GOD HAS MORE SAVES THAN JOSEPH! When Joseph left his house on Saturday, he was embarrassed to find his neighbors bowing to him in the street. "We should be bowing to him, too," says teammate Nelson Emerson. "He's gone above and beyond what anyone could imagine."
"Goalies always get so much attention in the playoffs," says Joseph. "Maybe it's because there's such tight checking that your stars don't get to shine as much. Every time Brett Hull steps out on the ice, two guys are on him. The goalie can't be shadowed or checked more tightly. He has more of a chance to affect the outcome of the game."
And stave off the slaughter of the lambs.