He has knocked two teams out of the playoffs and one goon into the Land of Nod. More than half of his NHL-leading 13 postseason goals have come on breathtaking breakaways; two were game-winners, one a series-winner. Vancouver Canuck right wing Pavel Bure, a.k.a. the Russian Rocket, has always had a flair for the dramatic. Until this season, though, it always deserted him in the spring.
Erasable in the clutch: That was the rap on the 23-year-old Bure before his deluge of 22 points thus far in this season's playoffs, a run that includes a third-period breakaway goal in Vancouver's 2-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday night. The victory gave the Canucks a 3-1 series lead.
Two years ago it was the nettlesome Finn Esa Tikkanen, then an Edmonton Oiler, who shut down the rookie Rocket. Last season Pat Conacher of the Los Angeles Kings blanketed both Bure and the Canucks in the first round.
True to form, Bure was neutralized early in the first round of these playoffs, this time by pestiferous Mike Sullivan of the Calgary Flames, who did all but follow Bure to the rest room between periods as the Flames took a commanding 3-1 series lead. But Bure and the Canucks clawed back, and Vancouver took three straight games, climaxed by Bure's series-winning goal in double overtime. After scoring, Bure flung his stick, then his gloves, into the air. His apparent intention to perform a celebratory striptease in Calgary's Saddledome was thwarted by a crush of jubilant Canucks.
His next dramatic statement came in the following round, at the expense of Dallas Star enforcer Shane Churla, who, along with some teammates, took runs at Bure throughout Game 1. Seven minutes into Game 2, Bure absorbed a cheap shot from Churla. When no penalty was called, Bure decided to mete out a bit of vigilante justice. With the benefit of a 180-foot skating start, the 5'10", 187-pound Rocket blindsided the 6'1", 200-pound Churla, who was unconscious before he hit the ice. It was unquestionably a dirty play. Bure was fined $500, and Churla, vowing revenge if it took "the rest of my career," refused to shake Bure's hand at the end of the series. But after watching Bure KO their toughest guy, the Stars suddenly began giving him more skating room. Bure used it, scoring six goals and almost single-handedly eliminating Dallas in five games.
That wee Pavel could fell an oak like Churla came as no surprise to Bure's teammates. "People don't realize how strong Pavel is," says Canuck center Cliff Ronning. In the Canucks' preseason strength tests, Bure, one of the club's smallest players, bench-pressed 200 pounds 15 times, second best on the team. Bure, whose 5.5% body fat makes him the leanest Vancouver player, is also the most explosive.
And the most expensive. Last fall the club balked at Bure's request for a $3 million-a-year contract extension. Since then the Rocket has simply detonated. He scored 46 goals in the club's final 46 games, ending the season with a league-leading 60 goals. His price tag is now reportedly between $4 million and $5 million per season. After scoring twice in a 4-0 win against the Leafs in Game 3, Bure reluctantly met the press. Pavel, he was asked, do you think the Canucks wish they'd signed you in October? "We'll see," he said.
Pavel, can you play better than you are playing right now?
"I don't know," replied Bure, who these days is saving his strongest statements for the ice.