The Russian was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma enveloped in the embrace of 19,995 throaty hockey fans. Detroit Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov basked in the noise at Joe Louis Arena last Saturday, ragging the puck, playing keepaway on a penalty kill against the overmatched Los Angeles Kings—Gee, Mister, if you let me touch the puck, I'll give you my lunch money—before he flipped a casual backhand pass through the neutral zone to set up another scoring chance.
If this year's Stanley Cup playoffs are the last dance for the NHL's oldest team, they're being played at waltz time. The Red Wings had a 2-1 series lead, a mild surprise only because Detroit was so thoroughly battered that the team picture should have been taken with an X-ray machine. In the first period of Game 1, center Steve Yzerman aggravated a left ankle sprain he'd suffered two weeks earlier and wing Brendan Shanahan broke his left foot blocking a shot from the point. Even Anna Kournikova, Fedorov's fianc�e, on hand to watch the playoff opener, had a cast on her left foot to protect a stress fracture of her ankle, although it was hidden beneath a to-die-for black leather pantsuit with ANNA in raised letters on the jacket. ("Did I see what Anna was wearing?" one of the Kings asked rhetorically last Friday. "You mean that spectacular black leather suit? Nope, missed it.") With 101 career playoff goals on the sideline in the steely Yzerman (who might return this week) and the stalwart Shanahan (out indefinitely), Detroit needed someone to keep these broken Wings flying.
The job fell to the brilliant, confounding, inconsistent, indispensible Fedorov. He blew a laser from the right circle past L.A. goalie Felix Potvin during a power play a mere 136 seconds into last Saturday's Game 2 in Detroit—"Not too many guys have that shot in their bag," Red Wings winger Darren McCarty said afterward—and made a cross-ice feed for another man-advantage goal seven minutes later. During the match Fedorov schooled center Jozef Stumpel on face-offs, punished defenseman Jere Karalahti with a check and even slid to block a shot, which, given the pitiable health of Detroit's other marquee forwards, was noble and certifiably insane. "I thought I was smarter than those two guys," Fedorov said, a smile dancing at the corners of his mouth. Fedorov turned the Kings into his personal chew toy in a 4-0 win, but in Game 3 in Los Angeles on Sunday night, the Kings finally shut him down in a 2-1 victory. Through three games, Fedorov had either scored or assisted on five of Detroit's 10 goals.
Filling the void created by the absence of Yzerman and Shanahan was a challenge that appealed to Fedorov's inner hero. When the Red Wings' coaches told him of Shanahan's injury on Thursday, Fedorov quizzed them about how long they planned to practice that afternoon, saying he wanted to have a stiff workout in the weight room to be strong for Games 2 and 3, which would be played on back-to-back days in cities three time zones apart. This was The Man emerging in Fedorov, a persona he often suppresses in deference to the Red Wings' close-knit team structure, one that brooks no conscience-free, Pavel Bure-style floating from anyone.
Whether he subconsciously defers to Yzerman, Detroit's storied captain for the last 15 years, or whether Yzerman's presence simply strips him of minutes and opportunities, Fedorov seems at his best during times that Yzerman is out of the lineup. "When Steve's on the ice, you're thinking that he can make something happen," Fedorov says. "When he's not, I have to remind myself to make something happen. Obviously it's a different mental approach."
In the 25 games Yzerman missed early in the season because of torn cartilage in his right knee, Fedorov had 13 goals, 17 assists and a +12 rating as he ached for the puck. In 48 games after Yzerman's return, Fedorov had 18 goals, 19 assists and a-1 rating. Fedorov looked like the best player in hockey for the first 10 weeks of the season, bringing up a question that arose after he scored 56 goals in 1993-94 (a season in which Yzerman missed 26 games because of a herniated disk) and was voted MVP and top defensive forward: Why isn't Fedorov the best player not for 10 weeks but for 10 years? Says Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, "Sometimes I don't know if he realizes how good he is."
The glory—and the exposed underbelly—of Fedorov is that of a hockey artist. Did talk-show hosts scream at Picasso to churn out Guernica 82 times a year and then give us 20-plus Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the postseason? Legendary Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake often told Bowman that the elegant Jean B�liveau, the Renoir of his era, simply couldn't play with a heavy cold. "There are players who have high expectations who need to feel they're going on all eight cylinders," Bowman says. "Whereas other players, without high expectations, will just get by in those situations."
Fedorov seemed pleased and mildly surprised when Bowman's assessment was relayed to him. The artist, you see, is often misunderstood by critics. "To deliver some nice things on the ice, I have to be feeling really, really good," Fedorov says. "If I feel physically down, sometimes my stick doesn't work. Or my skates." Indeed, after his nose was broken in a Feb. 23 collision with St. Louis Blues defenseman Bryce Salvador, Fedorov scored only one goal the rest of the regular season. Bowman lauded Fedorov's defense during the slump, which, while accurate, was like saying your blind date had a terrific personality.
The playoffs, however, have almost always brought out the best in Fedorov, who had 139 points in 132 postseason career games through Sunday and had been the Red Wings' playoff scoring leader or coleader in seven of the past 10 years. In Detroit's 5-3 victory in Game 1, he created or scored three of the first four goals by slipping through a slovenly Kings defense. He set up wing Tomas Holmstrom, converted a Shanahan pass from the slot and finally rifled another shot off Potvin that Shanahan tucked into the net. With Yzerman out, Bowman double-shifted the 31-year-old Fedorov in the first three games.
"Sergei was playing a ton when Steve was out early in the season, and he was thriving, even by Sergei's high standards," Shanahan says. "He's probably the most talented player I've ever played with if you break down his gifts. It's too easy to criticize him for being fragile. This is a man of real independence who has had a bull's-eye on his back his whole career. He had the mental toughness to defect from his country at age 20, to deal with the pressure of being Sergei Fedorov in Detroit, the scrutiny of being Kournikova's friend. People say he's fragile mentally. Well, you try to keep your composure on the road when some moron in the first row has some sign insulting her."