Van Hellemond has seen plenty of Kovalev, an electrifying one-on-one attacker whose best positions are right wing and prone. Kovalev regularly has turned the Madison Square Garden ice into Swan Lake, and while Campbell insists Kovalev would never fake an injury, he concedes that he has occasionally cautioned him against diving. Van Hellemond, who would have blown the whistle immediately if he thought Kovalev was seriously hurt, turned his head twice while following the play to see if anything in Kovalev's body language was crying wolf. Only after Quebec's Joe Sakic had skated three zones and fanned on a forehand shot did Van Hellemond raise the whistle to his lips and prepare to stop play. Unfortunately, he finally blew the whistle after Sakic scored on a backhander.
Van Hellemond conferred with his linesmen and then waved off the goal that would have given the Nordiques a 3-0 lead. When Kovalev finally clambered to his skates about four minutes after going down—yes, he was hurt, but lying on the ice for four minutes seemed to be overdoing it—Clark tapped the ice with his stick in mock tribute. Kovalev missed just one power-play and one penalty-killing shift, and he scored a goal and set up one in the second period. The Rangers won 3-2 in OT to take a three-games-to-one lead; the league later fined Van Hellemond, usually a top referee, for a "glaring error in judgment" in disallowing the goal that changed the tenor of the series.
"Diving? There are dozens of North Americans who pull the same stunt," Lowe says. "The greatest was Bill Barber, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Derek Sanderson. I've seen Wayne Gretzky do it, and even [teammate] Mark Messier do it on occasion. When you play as much one-on-one hockey as Alex does, getting hooked and held, you'll go down sometimes. But it becomes a reputation thing. They say that Russians dive, but how can you label everybody one way? In a sense, that's bigotry."
Kovalev is the Churchillian Russian, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, a dancing master on skates who heeds an internal rhythm. "Alex is the most Russian of our Russians," Campbell says. "He's the one who always says, 'Well, back in Russia, this is how we did it.' He doesn't want to beat one guy and give up the puck. He wants to beat one, two, three guys and then make the perfect pass. He wants to produce layups."
Campbell invited Kovalev into his office at the start of the season and showed him pictures of the Campbell family. "See them?" he asked, pointing to his wife and three chidren. "If you don't play well, I get fired." Kovalev was nonetheless uninspired during the regular season, scoring only 13 goals, as the Rangers limped into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But against the Nordiques he took a licking and responded with two goals in the clincher. Kovalev, who scored and set up two of Messier's goals last year when New York staved off elimination against the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the conference finals, now has 13 goals and 18 assists in 28 career playoff games. But instead of being lauded for elevating his play in the postseason, Kovalev has been assailed for not turning himself into the second coming of Pittsburgh Penguin star Jaromir Jagr.
Kovalev and Nemchinov may share a line, a language and a passport, but they hardly seem to come from the same universe. As dramatic and chatty as Kovalev is, Nemchinov is as stoic and silent, having earned the nickname Sarge as much for his grit as his first name. He is acclaimed as the Rangers' toughest player, and on a team with Messier, that is no small accolade. "In Game 4, Clark hit Sarge like nobody's business," says Nick Kypreos, the combative left wing who has been riding shotgun for the Russians since late in the regular season. "Sarge comes to the bench, and a minute, a minute-and-a-half later, blood starts rolling down his nose. He's there explaining a play to me, what we should have done differently, and I say, 'Sarge, you know you're bleeding?' He says, 'Yeah, but it'll go away.' Sometimes I have to yell at him, because he's like a bull on skates, and when he does get hooked, a legitimate infraction, he refuses to go down. Sometimes Sarge costs us a call."
You can learn a new language, a new culture, a new style of play, but how do you learn the Code? How long does it take to grasp the nuance that demands you do whatever it takes to win yet frowns on you for taking a dive to give your team a power play? After being weaned on the Olympics and the world championships, how do you acquire the Stanley Cup gene that imbues you with a sense that the NHL trophy is the one true chalice? "It's been only six years," says Detroit defenseman Slava Fetisov, who starred on the brilliant Red Army teams of the early 1980s. "Six years, that is all. In history, that is nothing."
A lack of enthusiasm for Cup play has been the knock against the Russians. They gladly will take the big money during the season, critics say, but with the playoffs paying only modestly—a player on a Stanley Cup winner might make a little more than $2,000 a game over almost two months of work—they are easily distracted by visions of summer and a visit home. Bure's postseason play for Vancouver the last couple of seasons has been so spectacular, intense and physically courageous that it should have erased this stereotypical view. During the 1994 Cup finals, however, stories surfaced that Bure's agent, Ron Salcer, had threatened to have Bure sit out a game in the first round against Calgary unless his client received a new contract. Salcer, Bure and Canuck general manager Pat Quinn denied reports of an extortion scheme that might have made even the Russian mafia blush. Bure did get a five-year, $22.5 million deal after those playoffs, but the rumor that the Russian Rocket had used a playoff game as leverage offended North American sensibilities.
"People keep asking if I think the Stanley Cup is important," Bure says. "This is my fourth year, and I've said before that the Olympics used to be more important to me. Now it's the Stanley Cup. We make big bucks, almost all of us. But we don't play hockey just because we want to get money. You've got pride, and you like the sport. Pride is bigger than money."
The Cup belongs to anyone tough enough to claim it, which the four Russians proved last June. As the Rangers poured onto the ice to celebrate the end of a 54-year championship drought, Kovalev—born in Togliatti, educated in Moscow—whooped, "Now they'll stop saying 1940 to us."