Even watching at home on an 18-inch television screen, peering through cigarette smoke and sipping beer, this much is clear: Every time Pavel Bure touches the puck, the game is demonstrably altered. Number 10 seems to explode across the ice, gathering the puck at the blue line and snapping it past another unsuspecting goalie before you can say, "Holy perestroika, Pavel!" Take one game, say early March, against the Northeast Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs: The Cats are in a horrid, season-threatening slump, losers of four straight at home and seemingly sleep-skating for the last month. The team's once insurmountable lead in the Southeast Division has dwindled to just two games over the insurgent Washington Capitals. Enter Pavel. Near the end of the first period, number 10 cuts across the ice and blisters a puck past goalie Curtis Joseph. Goal number 44 (long ago shattering a Panther record). Bure then slides across the ice on one knee in gunslinger fashion, pumping his fist, and all you can think is
Slump? What slump?
Just like that, clear as Russian vodka, the Cats are back. The Panthers go on to manhandle the Leafs, with Bure adding an empty-net goal as an exclamation point to the 3-1 victory. And they then go on to bury the Capitals in the bottom of their litter box.