At 24, Colorado Avalanche center Chris Drury has a clear understanding of playoff hockey. The NHL postseason is a demanding journey, and he recognizes that the greatest thrills come from its transporting moments—those vital seconds when a game or a series is suddenly, spectacularly resolved. These are the instants that bring fans to their feet and brand players into our memories. In short, they are the moments for which Drury was born. "It's awe-inspiring what this kid does," says veteran Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake. "Time after time he's the guy who makes the play when everything's on the line."
Drury and Colorado are playing in their third Western Conference final in as many years—they led the St. Louis Blues two games to none after a 4-2 win on Monday night in which Drury had a goal and an assist—and in that time Drury has established himself as a man of many moments. With 1:07 remaining in Game 1 of the Avalanche's first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, he beat Dan Cloutier with a nifty backhander to snap a 4-4 tie. In Game 7 of the second round against the Los Angeles Kings, Drury roofed a third-period goal that put Colorado ahead to stay and served notice to the St. Louis brain trust. "For all the stars the Avalanche has, we look at Drury as the guy we have to stop," says Blues coach Joel Quenneville. "We have to know where he is on the ice, especially in the third period. He's been in the league only three years, but there's no better clutch player out there."
Drury doesn't have the speed or shooting skill of Colorado captain Joe Sakic, who carried the Avalanche with four points in a 4-1 win in Game 1 of the conference finals, and Drury isn't even among the six Colorado players who appeared in this year's All-Star Game. Yet it was no surprise that after Game 2 he led the team with eight playoff goals. At 5'10" and 185 pounds, Drury, who had 65 points in 71 games during the regular season, plays with feistiness, moves the puck daringly and has a rare ability to raise his intensity as the game progresses. Last Friday, in the wake of the news that Avalanche All-Star center Peter Forsberg would miss the rest of the postseason after having surgery to remove his spleen, coach Bob Hartley issued a preliminary plan for combating the loss. "One thing is certain," Hartley said. "You will see a lot of Chris Drury."
When Drury arrived at Colorado's training camp in 1998 fresh off winning the Hobey Baker Award at Boston University, neither Hartley nor general manager Pierre Lacroix thought Drury had the offensive ability that soon made him a key member of the Avalanche's top two lines. The Avalanche had selected Drury in the third round of the '94 draft—much higher than most teams had him pegged—partly because of his extraordinary athletic pedigree and partly because Drury's confidence in interviews with Colorado scouts made Lacroix believe "he might be someone who could play well in big games."
The overtime goal Drury scored to beat the Dallas Stars as a rookie in the 1999 conference finals and his tally with 3:51 left in regulation to beat the Stars in Game 6 of Round 3 last year are eminently worth recalling, but nothing reveals Drury's seize-the-play mentality better than one staggering statistic: Through Monday the Avalanche had won 32 playoff games since Drury joined the team, and he'd scored the winner eight times. "When it's getting late in a close game, those are the times I'm most relaxed," says Drury. "I don't think about the situation directly, but I'm aware of what's going on. I can feel myself getting looser. It's like I'm in my element. There's no question that it comes from what I experienced when I was young."
Despite appearances—he wears his hair in Boy Scout style and still gets the odd pimple—Drury is a thoughtful man. He has long been adept at taking stock of his athletic life, and when he looks back, he sees it studded with the incidents that have molded him into the assured competitor he is today. When Drury pitched Trumbull, Conn., to victory over Taiwan in the finale of the 1989 Little League World Series, he became a minor American folk hero, a player whom opponents targeted and the media followed. "Every baseball or hockey game I played after age 12, people expected something from me, and I suppose that suited me," says Drury. "I'm not saying it to be cocky, it's just how it was."
Drury has never folded, instead making the most of big moments. At Trumbull's postchampionship visit to Yankee Stadium, Drury hooked his hero, first baseman Don Mattingly, into a game of catch. Last summer he took batting practice at Fenway Park. His brief session was nearly over when Drury got hold of a pitch and drove the ball into the net above the Green Monster.
He also can drive a golf ball, and he runs a charity tournament for Travis Roy. Of all the split seconds that have made Drury who he is, none was so profound as the one that paralyzed Roy, his college teammate, in 1995. Drury was three strides from where Roy went headfirst into the boards, sustaining a fracture of the cervical spine, and Drury can still hear the crack of the impact. He had been Roy's guide on his recruiting visit to Boston University, had taken him to parties, put him up in his dorm room. They remain friends. "There's never a day I don't think about him and what happened," says Drury. "It could have been me. Maybe that has something to do with handling pressure. I don't care what game it is, even if it's the last game of the Stanley Cup, it's nothing like what Travis goes through every day."
Ever since he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, Drury has emerged as the leader of Colorado's core of young players, a group that includes offensive dynamos Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. Lacroix calls Drury a role model. After the Avalanche dropped Game 5 of the series against the Kings on May 4, a 1-0 defeat in which Drury's defensive mistake helped lead to the winning goal, he stood by his dressing-room stall and addressed wave after wave of reporters, taking responsibility for what had been a teamwide defeat. "Sometimes," Tanguay noted the next day, "you see a man's character most after a loss."
"Drury comes in and works his tail off every day," says Blake. "Then he goes out and wins games. He makes moves through traffic that take serious guts. That guy's going to be a captain someday."