Each of this year's conference finalists has a pest of its own, and each of these playoff pot-stirrers has his own style, a way of doing You Got Me Under Your Skin as differently as Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli. There's the Washington Capitals' Tikkanen, who, after winning five Stanley Cups as a member of the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers, needs no introduction, but his unique blend of syntax-stunted English and Finnish, which linguists call Tikkanese, needs subtitles. There's Matthew Barnaby of the Buffalo Sabres, who rants, dives and preens; until he retired his silver false front teeth—with the Sabres' logo engraved on one—after last season, he was as close as the NHL comes to caricature. There's Martin Lapointe of the Detroit Red Wings, who's strong and snide and sticks his nose into everything. And there's bite-sized Bob Bassen of the Dallas Stars, who leads with his face and repeats more than a 2 a.m. pepperoni-and-anchovy pizza.
"You need guys like these, especially in the playoffs," Washington coach Ron Wilson says. "If you're, say, [Ottawa Senators star] Alexei Yashin and it's the regular season, you only have to worry about Tik tonight because in two nights you'll be seeing somebody different. In the playoffs you'll be facing him every night, and he has the capability of getting to you in the first game. That almost has the effect of cutting your heart out early in a series."
In Game 2 of the Sabres' first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Barnaby and teammate Rob Ray caused $3,200 in damage to the visitors' locker room after being ejected for verbally abusing the referee. During the rampage, Barnaby picked up Ray's broken stick and smashed it to splinters. "What, it wasn't broken enough for you?" Ray asked.
"I didn't want to ruin any of my own," Barnaby replied.
This showed a stunning level of forethought for the 25-year-old Barnaby, who last summer said he would run Hasek, Buffalo's star, in training camp because of what he perceived as Hasek's role in former coach Ted Nolan's departure from the Sabres last July. Barnaby, who led the NHL with 335 penalty minutes in 1995-96, seems to have been born without a pause button—his thoughts hurtle straight from his brain to his tongue or his hands. At the urging of Nolan's successor, Lindy Ruff, the 6-foot, 188-pound Barnaby is working on self-control and was extraordinarily disciplined in Buffalo's 2-0 win in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals in Washington last Saturday. He got an assist and engaged in nothing more incendiary than a little jawing with the Capitals' Chris Simon and Dale Hunter. Barnaby was on his best behavior again in Game 2 on Monday and scored an unassisted power-play goal with 56 seconds left to force overtime. His shot was accidentally directed past Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig by Tikkanen, but the Caps came back to win 3-2 and even the series.
Barnaby doesn't have feet of clay, but he does have a mouth like Andrew Dice Clay's. "I can't believe some of the things he says out there," Sabres defenseman Mike Wilson says. "There's no line he won't cross. Something about your wife, your girlfriend, it doesn't matter."
"The one that amazed me last year was when he told [Philadelphia defenseman] Paul Coffey that if he came over the red line in warmups, he'd break his ankle," Ray says. "You wished he hadn't gone that far, but he didn't care. He was looking to get into Coffey's head."
The other place Barnaby often looks toward is the penalty box. Even before the decision to enforce obstruction calls in the second half of this season revived the art of diving, Barnaby was an expert. In overtime of the fifth game against Philly in Round 1, he turned a slight knock on the head from the stick of his archenemy, Chris Gratton—whose skin Barnaby has gotten under for years—into a near-mortal blow, drawing a penalty. Miraculously he recovered in time to see Michal Grosek score the series winner during the Sabres' ensuing power play. Before joining the celebration, Barnaby turned to the crowd in Philadelphia, jumped up and down, and gave a hearty nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.
"He's a bit of a hot dog," Wilson says, "but he uses it to his advantage. He's got something like a Dennis Rodman persona: the teeth, showboating after goals, embellishing every hit he receives. Maybe in the '70s and '80s you wouldn't play the game his way, but today it works. I respect him."
Bassen never showboats. He's a black-with-no-sugar player, whose approach is as old-fashioned as Barnaby's histrionics are modern. When Bassen played for the St. Louis Blues, Brett Hull, the Blues' star, called him Scar Tissue because of the roadways under his eyes that meet at a junction on the bridge of his nose. Sometimes he's referred to as the Eighth Sutter, a member-inspirit of the rugged hockey-playing clan. Like the Sutters, Bassen steeled himself in battles against his siblings, notably his sister Sandra, who was a year older. "He's fearless," Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock says of the 33-year-old Bassen, who is listed generously at 5'10" and 185 pounds. "You never get an easy shift when he's on the ice. You're always skating back to the bench saying, 'Damn, that was hard.' "