The $38 million gamble the Detroit Red Wings took in matching Carolina's offer sheet to Sergei Fedorov is on the brink of paying off in a second straight Stanley Cup.
And make no mistake, Fedorov is earning every penny of it."I think he wants to prove something," Red Wings associate coach Dave Lewis said Sunday, a little more than 13 hours after Fedorov scored late in the third period to give Detroit a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals and a 3-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals.
Detroit can become the first team to win consecutive Cups since Pittsburgh in 1991-92 by beating Washington Tuesday night.
While Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman (6 goals, 18 assists) appears to be the favorite to win the Conn Symthe Trophy as the playoff MVP, Lewis doubts whether Detroit would be close to repeating without Fedorov.
The blond-haired center who has drawn more attention for his contract and his relationship with tennis star Anna Kournikova has had a spectacular playoff, on both ends of the ice. He leads the NHL with a career-high 10 playoff goals, and he has 18 points. Not only is he scoring, he is killing penalties, backchecking on offense and working the power play.
He's also one of the Red Wings' most intelligent players on the ice.
"You can't play strong defensively unless you have a good mind for the game," Lewis said. "Offensively, you can get away with talent, but defensively you can't. I think he is such a blend, the complete player in that he can do it on both sides of the puck.
"Time and again that can either save a game or win a game. That's a rare commodity in players."
And that's why the Red Wings gambled in late February, matching the six-year, $38 million free agent contract that the Hurricanes offered Fedorov. It included a $14 million signing bonus and a second $12 million accelerated bonus that would pay off July 1 if the team made the finals.
That wasn't a problem for Carolina. The Hurricanes didn't expect to go that far.
For the Red Wings, it was a potential roadblock to matching the offer.
Detroit owner Mike Ilitch decided to match, feeling that he would not get fair market value by letting Fedorov walk for five firstround draft choices.
So after a 59-game holdout, Fedorov returned to the Red Wings and gave them one more weapon in the quest for a Stanley Cup.
His game-winning goal with 4:51 to play Saturday night was worth a big part of his contact. He took a pass from Doug Brown off the side boards in center ice, swept down the right wing, cut across the faceoff circle to gain an advantage on defenseman Calle Johansson, then beat Olaf Kolzig with a shot over his glove.
"Sergei is a game-breaker and that's exactly what he did for us last night," said center Kris Draper, who had the game-winner in overtime in Game 2.
"He turned nothing into a game-winning goal and that's what great players do. We were a confident team all year, then as soon as we got Sergei, we realized we had an opportunity to make a very good run at the Stanley Cup, and that's exactly what he brings us."
Fedorov has downplayed his contract and the off-the-ice issues all season. His personal accomplishments don't seem to interest him as much as another Cup and the city he now considers home.
"I love Detroit," Fedorov said. "It's been home to me. I defect here. I put my life on the line once. Why would I want to go somewhere else? I have done quite a few things for this team and this team has done quite a few things for me that will never be forgotten."
A second Cup will make the relationship even stronger, although Washington still believes it can come back and win the final four games, a feat accomplished only by Toronto in 1942. The Caps have lost each of the first three games by one goal.
"There's very little between winning and losing," said veteran Brian Bellows, who scored for Washington Saturday night. "We have to try to get some respect, win one game, then parlay that (into another win) in Detroit). We need to forecheck more. We need more confidence."