BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mario Lemieux came out of retirement for one more shot at winning a Stanley Cup. Dominik Hasek put off plans to retire for the same reason.
How fitting that the two NHL stars' aspirations will meet head-to-head when Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins and Hasek's Sabres open their second-round playoff series in Buffalo on Thursday.
''Good timing for the both of us, I think,'' Lemieux said, laughing, on Wednesday afternoon. ''I think it's going to be great for everybody involved, the two teams and the fans. (Hasek's) exciting to watch.''
Hasek's aware of how exciting and driven Lemieux can be, too.
''I'm sure for him winning the Cup is as big as it is for me,'' Hasek said. ''He came back for two reasons. One is he wants to prove that he's still the top player in the NHL, which he proved already. And the other goal is to win back the Stanley Cup for the organization.
''It's the same approach, his and mine.''
It's an intriguing matchup, pitting one of the NHL's most prolific scorers against one of the game's top goaltenders.
''Only one of us can move forward,'' he said. ''Only one can do it. I will try to do anything to win four games.''
The Sabres, who made the Stanley Cup finals two years ago and lost to Dallas, have a veteran-laden team, counting on Hasek's remarkable puck-stopping ability to get them back into June.
Hasek appears to have regained his form, finishing fourth in the NHL with a 2.11 goals-against average and a league-leading 11 shutouts.
Not bad for someone who considered retiring a year ago, changing his mind only after he missed half of the 1999-2000 season with a groin injury.
As much as he's eyeing playing in next year's Olympics, and a chance at defending the Czech Republic's gold-medal victory, it was the draw of the Stanley Cup that brought Hasek back.
His contract status uncertain, the Sabres hold a one-year option on whether to re-sign him for $9 million, Hasek has said he would gladly retire after winning a Cup for Buffalo.
Lemieux, who returned after 3 1/2 years of retirement in December, has little left to prove, a two-time playoff MVP who has already won two Cups with in 1991 and '92 Penguins.
But that hasn't lessened the itch.
''This year has been a lot of fun. Really, I have a second chance to be a part of the NHL again and to play for the Cup again,'' Lemieux said. ''That was the one reason, to play in the playoffs and to play for the Stanley Cup. I'm glad I made the decision.''
In one breath he refers to the playoffs as a marathon that taxes both body and mind. In the next, he's talking about boyhood dreams.
''I could play for nothing to have a chance to try to win the Stanley Cup,'' Lemieux said. ''That's why we play the game, since we were little boys, to have a chance to play for that Cup and hopefully, one day, lift it at center ice.''
With Lemieux's presence, and the emergence of rookie goaltender Johan Hedberg, the Penguins appear primed.
They're buying into a defensive system to stymie opponents, and have one of the league's most potent offenses. It scored 281 goals this past season, second only to New Jersey.
Lemieux has been a big reason for the Penguins resurgence, scoring 35 goals and 76 points in a mere 43 games.
Count the Sabres among those impressed.
''What he's done in the last four months, I'm amazed,'' Hasek said. ''I'm telling you, I didn't believe he could be the top forward in the NHL again, and he is. He's proved it.''
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who played 14 NHL seasons, finds it difficult to fathom how a player could miss three years and return as if he's never left.
Ruff, however, understands the draw that lured Lemieux back, the same one that prevented Hasek from retiring -- winning a Cup.
''It's typical. I think Mario's having fun playing the game. Dom thought about leaving the game and realized that in the absence of his injury that: 'I don't know if I want to stop playing this game,''' Ruff said. ''They've always said it's tough to leave the game. And for Mario to leave it and come back, I think that sums it up.''
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