Referee Andy van Hellemond—recalling, perhaps, the abuse heaped on him for failing to penalize Bure for a vicious, blindside hit that coldcocked the Dallas Stars' Shane Churla in the second round of the playoffs—unhesitatingly awarded the Rangers a five-minute power play and ejected Bure from the game. Ranger winger Glenn Anderson's game-winning goal, his second of the series, came 58 seconds after Bure got the thumb.
Bure's foul was dangerous, flagrant and stupid and represented a relapse for the Canucks' 23-year-old star, who is now in his third NHL season. Unlike in his previous two playoffs, Bure had been devastating this spring, largely due to his ability to avoid penalties wrought of frustration. "He was playing so well," said his countryman and rival, Ranger winger Alexei Kovalev. "Why did he do that?"
Bure was not convincing as he tried to explain the hit on Wells: "I think my stick slid on his shoulder and hit him in the face," he said. "I tried to use my body. I missed." Equally unpersuasive was Canuck coach and general manager Pat Quinn, who argued that a four-minute penalty on Bure would have been more appropriate, "it didn't appear that Jay was hurt too badly," said Quinn. "Our players didn't think he was cut."
Wells, meanwhile, was in the Ranger dressing room with four stitches on his face and his nose out of joint, literally. "I grabbed it and squeezed it and put it back in [place]. It gave a little crunch and popped right in," said Wells, who bore no apparent grudge against Bure, saying only, "He's a feisty little bugger."
And a wealthy one. Earlier in the week had come the reports that Bure had agreed to a four-year, $22.5 million contract extension that makes him hockey's third-highest-paid player, behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Then came reports that before either Game 6 or Game 7 of Vancouver's first-round series against the Calgary Flames, Bure's agent, Ron Salcer, had delivered an ultimatum to Quinn: Sign Bure immediately or the Rocket would not play that night. Salcer has dismissed the story as "fiction," but it is supported by one NHL executive who told SI he got the information from a member of Vancouver's front office. True or not, a contract agreement was reached soon thereafter.
Bure would have had to boycott the first two games of the finals to be less conspicuous than he was, mustering one meager assist. His woes were blamed, in part, on a lingering flu. But what most ailed Bure was an acute case of eleven-itis. Before the series, Ranger coach Mike Keenan decided that rather than sic shadowing specialist Esa Tikkanen on the Rocket, he would check Bure's line with Messier's. The result: Number 11 manhandled Trevor Linden, Bure's center, and Bure saw the puck far less than he usually does. On Saturday his frustration boiled over.
Messier, 33 and closing out his 15th pro season, is an inspiration to thirtysomethings everywhere. He is logging 25 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs and motoring past men 10 years his junior. "Fatigue?" says the veteran of 196 playoff games. "There's no fatigue this time of year."
Messier can be credited with delivering the Rangers into the Cup finals—and perhaps sparing Keenan a summer of second-guessing. With his team trailing 2-0 in the first period in Game 4 of the conference finals against the Devils, Keenan reacted oddly, yanking goalie Mike Richter and benching several veterans. After these maneuvers failed and the Rangers lost 3-1, Keenan reported that the benched players were injured, an admission that, if true, violated hockey's unwritten playoff rule: Injuries are top secret. Going public with a player's ailment is tantamount to putting a bull's-eye on him.
Keenan, who has coached three underdog teams to appearances—and losses—in the Stanley Cup finals (the Philadelphia Flyers in '85 and '87 and the Chicago Blackhawks in '92), seemed less sure of himself behind the bench of a prohibitive favorite. "His ultimate dream would be to win the Stanley Cup without players," one of Keenan's former players told the Toronto Sun. "He wants to find a way to have people say that the Rangers were coached to a Stanley Cup."
Says New York's backup goalie Glenn Healy, "Keenan won't make one save, he won't score a single goal. It will be us players who win or lose this whole shebang." And, indeed, it was Messier, who after audaciously guaranteeing victory, a la Joe Namath, in Game 6 in New Jersey, provided a third-period hat trick to force a seventh game, which New York won in double OT on Stéphane Matteau's goal.