Thursday, December 29, 2011
Jagr better when he shares spotlight
By Scott Burnside
PITTSBURGH -- One of the things that has sometimes been lost in translation when it comes to Jaromir Jagr has been his rich sense of humor.
So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that after Jagr burst through the Penguins' defense and snapped home a backhand that would help the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-2 victory over Jagr's former team -- a team that had hoped to bring him back last summer -- that the star winger would pause momentarily to give his trademark Jagr salute to the Penguins' fans.
"You know, you've got to enjoy it, every moment I've got," Jagr said with a grin. "I don't know how many games I'm going to play. Every game could be my last game. That's why I'm happy for every goal I can score."
Um, folks, he is kidding.
If the Flyers and the rest of the hockey world weren't entirely sure what would happen when the five-time scoring champ and two-time Stanley Cup winner was signed to a one-year deal in the summer, that question has been answered in spades. In short, it's turned out the Flyers were getting the real deal.
"It's been, I don't want to say better than I'd hoped, but he's been tremendous," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com after Thursday's victory.
And maybe it's this distinct lack of expectation or rather muted expectations that have allowed Jagr to enjoy what has thus far been a storybook return to the NHL after spending the previous three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
In the past when Jagr has been a disappointment, toward the end in Pittsburgh and in Washington, where owner Ted Leonsis tried to build a franchise around the mercurial Czech star, it's been when the light has shone almost entirely on him.
In spite of his Hall of Fame production -- along with his five scoring titles, Jagr owns two Stanley Cup rings from his time as a Penguin -- he has never sought out the limelight, has often seemed uncomfortable in its harsh glare.
The expectations are much higher in Philadelphia, but those expectations do not begin and end with Jagr. And in a strange way, that appears to have allowed him to become a significant figure on a team that has legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
This night in Pittsburgh illustrated just how seamless Jagr's return to elite play has been, as the Flyers ended a two-game losing streak against their longtime cross-state rivals and pulled two points ahead of them in the hotly contested Atlantic Division.
In spite of being booed every time he touched the puck, Jagr was a force all night. Although he did not draw an assist, his work behind the net on a first-period power play led directly to Kimmo Timonen's goal that tied the game at 1-all.
Then, in the second period, it was Jagr's 12th goal of the season that gave the Flyers a lead they would not relinquish.
"It wasn't my night, kind of. I felt pretty good but I had so many chances, if I would score five goals, nobody would be surprised, but I just couldn't score them," Jagr said.
The big winger now has 31 points in 32 games, but he's bringing more than just the point production.
With the score tied at 1-all, it was Jagr who disrupted Penguins winger James Neal, lifting his stick at the last second and preventing Neal from scoring into a vacant Flyers net.
Asked about the play, Jagr joked that he wanted reporters to remember it when it came time to vote for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the top defensive forward in the game. It was a lighthearted nod to the perception -- or misperception, as the case may be -- that sometimes Jagr hasn't been all that interested in two-way hockey.
Through the first two periods, as the Flyers built a 3-1 lead, there were few shifts on which Jagr and linemates Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell did not create something of a scoring chance.
Giroux, the NHL's leading point-getter, is enjoying a breakout, Hart trophy-worthy season and added two more assists Thursday night. How much of this blossoming has Jagr's fingerprints on it is debatable, but the synergy the two enjoy is clear.
"He's just a smart player. I think it's pretty easy to play with him. He wins a lot of battles and slows down the play a little bit, and he thinks the game differently. Hopefully, we can keep the chemistry going," Giroux said.
The Flyers are an interesting case study. Even with captain Chris Pronger lost for the season with a concussion, there remains a strong veteran core that includes Timonen, Hartnell and Daniel Briere.
But the team also is getting surprising production from rookies Matt Read (who scored the game winner Thursday), Sean Couturier and defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon. Those young players are the ones to whom Jagr has taken a shine.
"Jagr's been known to pull a bunch of our young guys into a room and do pushups with them for 20 minutes or something. The way he prepares and the way our leaders prepare, it's really good," Holmgren said.
That Jagr's leadership role has been a bonus is undeniable. That he seems to be energized from that role is likewise not in dispute.
"You know what? It's a lot easier to tell somebody what to do than do it," Jagr said. "And I find out, it's a lot harder to do it. I [played] with so many great players; I learned so many things during my 20 years [of] hockey life. If you can tell something to the young guys, because sooner or later they're going to find out anyways, that's the way it is, but just to let them know and help them some way, it makes me happier and it makes me happier because I see that they try those things and they're getting better."
Asked whether he's having more fun than he expected he would in Philadelphia, Jagr paused before answering.
"I think the biggest difference is the young guys ... they bring the excitement. They're just kids; they don't worry about anything. They kind of bring the attitude to you," he said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.