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Cool as Ice When the pressure mounts in the postseason, it's the special breed of money players that always cashes in

June 03, 2002
June 03, 2002

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June 3, 2002

Cool as Ice When the pressure mounts in the postseason, it's the special breed of money players that always cashes in

There is something genteel about the sabbatical, with its
overtones of hying off to read a great book or write a novel or
see the world. But not necessarily. That was the perverse beauty
of the leave of absence that center Peter Forsberg took from the
Colorado Avalanche at the beginning of the 2001-02 season. He
swears he did not read a single book that he'd always wanted to.
He wrote no epics. Except for a week spent hanging around his
house in Spain, he didn't travel. Instead, Forsberg literally
chilled in his hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, a dreary
seaport roughly midway between Stockholm and the Arctic Circle,
working out twice a day and occasionally sitting in the stands
to watch MoDo, his former Swedish Elite League team.

This is an article from the June 3, 2002 issue Original Layout

His playoff-leading 27 points for the Avalanche through Monday
is the best argument that the unexamined life is worth living.
Forsberg needed the sabbatical to recover physically and
psychologically from having his spleen removed last May and also
to heal his chronically injured ankles. (He had surgery to
relieve the pain from inflamed bursa sacs.) He returned for the
first game of the 2002 playoffs the same player he was when he
exited: one of the game's top clutch performers. "I like the
playoffs," says the 28-year-old Forsberg. "It's all about the
hockey, winning the Stanley Cup. Yes, you play as hard as you
can in the regular season, but the playoffs are when it really
counts, when you have to be really good."

Forsberg would be called a money player except there is little
money for NHL players come postseason. For two months of the
kind of braveheart hockey being played in the superb
Avalanche-Detroit Red Wings Western Conference finals--Colorado
had a 3-2 series lead after a 2-1 road overtime victory on
Monday night in which Forsberg scored the winner--each player on
the Stanley Cup champion will earn about $85,000, or roughly
half of what an NBA titlist would get. Forsberg is the man of
the hour, not the man of the hourly wage. By at least one
measuring stick, Forsberg, who has never scored more than 30
goals in any of his seven regular seasons, qualifies as the top
playoff performer among active NHL players with at least 100
postseason games. During the regular season over his career he
has averaged .3627 goals per game, but through 113 career
playoff matches, when the neutral zone is a briar patch and
defensemen hang on elite forwards like Christmas ornaments,
Forsberg has scored .4513 per game. The differential is
extraordinary, the second greatest in NHL history (behind
perennial playoff pest Esa Tikkanen).

Forsberg has made his place among the game's postseason money
players. Membership in this fraternity is earned over time. An
unlikely candidate, for example, would be a wonder like Carolina
Hurricanes second-year defenseman Niclas Wallin (whose team had
a 3-2 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern
Conference finals as of Monday). Wallin stunned everyone by
scoring two playoff overtime goals this spring after scoring
just one goal in the 2001-02 season. But he is a playoff curio,
a footnote to the real hockey history written by players such as
Maurice (Rocket) Richard. The Rocket, the 544-goal legend who
won eight Cups with the Montreal Canadiens from 1942-43 through
'59-60, was an even more prolific scorer in the playoffs. The
money player often builds his reputation on something memorable,
like the hat trick Mark Messier scored to underwrite his
guarantee of victory by the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the
titanic 1994 semifinals against the New Jersey Devils. (Messier
is fourth alltime in the differential between regular-season and
playoff scoring among skaters with at least 100 postseason games.)

Brett Hull of the Red Wings once had the reputation of being a
playoff performer who didn't have his best moments in the
clutch. That dissipated in the wee hours of June 19, 1999, when
his goal in triple overtime in Game 6 ousted the Buffalo Sabres
and gave the Cup to the Dallas Stars. For years Hull was
bad-mouthed by hockey observers as a selfish player who would
never be on a winner, but that perception has changed, and he is
now the epitome of a money player. In 179 playoff matches
through Monday, Hull had 22 game-winning goals, second alltime
behind Wayne Gretzky's 24.

The money player takes the most sphincter-tightening moments and
turns them into larks. Colorado goalie Patrick Roy won 10
straight postseason overtime games in 1993 with the Canadiens
and had a 40-16 career record in playoff sudden death. "It comes
down to pride," says Roy, the three-time postseason MVP who
holds the records for most playoff games (238), victories (148)
and shutouts (22). The undisputed Mr. April-To-June withdrew
from Olympic consideration for Canada last November because he
did not want to compromise a shot at a fifth Stanley Cup, which
would leave him one behind Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante, who
share the record for goalies. "I don't know if it's because when
I was a kid, I would see the Canadiens go down St. Catherine
Street with the Stanley Cup all the time," says Roy, who grew up
in Quebec City. "That was something special. Every year after
watching that, we'd go out and play hockey in the street, and
every game would be Game 7. Now, when the season starts, that's
what I'm preparing for."

Chris Drury, Colorado's second-line center, has always been
prepared for the big games. He had scored 26 goals in four
playoff seasons, and an astounding 11 of those had been
game-winners, ranking him 11th among active players in that
category. Drury usually rides shotgun for Forsberg, who either
sets up goals, as he did with the delicate chip pass that Drury
ticked by goalie Dominik Hasek for the winner in the Avalanche's
3-2 victory in Game 4 last Saturday, or creates so much space
that Drury can make his own news. Drury has what 41-year-old Red
Wings center Igor Larionov, hockey's Obi-Wan, calls the
"instinct in your soul," a knack for squeezing the most from his
abilities at the most important times. Drury passed his
metaphysical early in the Game 2 overtime at Detroit on May 20.
Hasek was down, and Drury, after a nifty passing play initiated
by Forsberg, could have fired on net. Instead, he held the puck,
deked wide, put Hasek out on Jefferson Avenue and slid the puck
into the yawning net. Drury then celebrated like a man who had
scored the first goal on a late October night in Nashville.

"I'm not a nervous guy," says the 25-year-old Drury. "They're
different worlds, but being on that stage in front of 40,000
people when I was 12 years old"--Drury was the winning pitcher
for the 1989 Little League World Series champions from Trumbull,
Conn.--"has had a calming influence on me. Some people might
tense up, white knuckles on the stick. I go the other way. I'm
not trying to be arrogant, but I feel very calm at that time of
game. Getting ready to go out for that overtime [in Game 2],
guys were screaming and yelling to get fired up, but I was
relaxed. On that goal Hasek was down, and I could have shot. If
a guy isn't calm, maybe he shoots it as hard as he can, hoping
it goes in, but maybe it misses the net or hits the post or gets
saved. I just made the extra move."

Not every money player has the preternatural calm of Drury. Rod
Brind'Amour of the Hurricanes, another among the select group
who scores at a higher rate in the playoffs than in the regular
season, is a clenched fist. He lobbies incessantly for his
opportunities. "He wants to be on the ice all the time," says
Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "If he played only 20 minutes, I'd
be getting the fish eye all night." Roy has so many nervous tics
that he makes Richard Simmons look like a yogi. But from the
fierce to the focused, the common trait among money players is
an ability to concentrate on the game and not on the
implications of the game. As Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, a
former playoff MVP, says, "If anyone comes into the dressing
room thinking he's had a great game, he'll realize he wasn't
thinking about it but just playing. He wasn't uptight because he
was wrapped up in the game."

The prime-time player has the physical gifts to be more
effective when the pace and the intensity of the game increase,
but he also has a clear head, able to focus on the details that
night and not on the headlines the next morning. He welcomes the
spring like Forsberg, who didn't write the Great Swedish Novel
on his sabbatical but who is now adding another chapter to the
saga of the money player.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI Game over Drury, who scored this overtime goal against Hasek in Game 2, has 11 playoff game-winners in his four-year career.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO LOU CAPOZZOLA (HULL) Goal-oriented Among the best in the clutch are Hull (top left), who has 22 game-winners; Forsberg (21), this year's scoring leader; and Brind'Amour, a Hurricane force.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (FORSBERG) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA (BRIND'AMOUR) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS Rocket power Richard anchored the powerhouse Canadiens teams and holds the club record for playoff hat tricks, with seven.

The Alltime All-Clutch Team
Here are SI's choices for the best money players in the
postseason.

C WAYNE GRETZKY
Won four Stanley Cups in five years ('84, '85, '87, '88) with
the Oilers; holds playoff records for most career (122) and
game-winning goals (24) and assists (260).

LW BOBBY HULL
The Golden Jet led postseason goal scorers three times ('62,
'63, '65) and playoff point-getters once ('65); won the Stanley
Cup in '61 with the Blackhawks.

RW MAURICE (ROCKET) RICHARD
Dominated finals during Canadiens' heyday (eight Cups, including
five in a row from '56 to '60); 34 goals, three of them in OT,
are league finals records.

D BOBBY ORR
Two-time playoff MVP for Boston; famously scored the Stanley
Cup-winning goal in '70 while flying through the air; won a
second Cup two years later.

D RED KELLY
Physical blueliner was also a superb puck mover; eight Stanley
Cup victories (four each with Red Wings and Maple Leafs), the
most by a non-Canadien.

G PATRICK ROY
More postseason wins (148) and shutouts (22) than any other
netminder; record in overtime was 40-16; won two Cups with
Canadiens and two with Avalanche.

The money player doesn't think about the next morning's
headlines.