Tuesday, June 18, 2013

At 41, Jagr still has those dominant moments

By Larry Wigge

Jaromir Jagr used to be a dominant, take-your-breadth away star. Give him and inch and he'd take a mile, using his size and strength.

It was Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals, when Jagr stickhandle-around-the-entire-Chicago-team and beat Blackhawks goalie Ed Belfour with the backhander with 4:55 left to play. Mario Lemieux with 15 seconds left for the winner en route to a four-game sweep by the Pittsburgh Penguins over Chicago.

Even Boston center Patrice Bergeron claims to remember THE PLAY. That came as a surprise that a kid would remember.

"I was only 7 years old, but I remember that play," Bergeron recalled. "He skated in and around every body on that play ..."

He was drawing from a young memory for something truly memorable. Stuggling for details, Bergeron was awestruck, saying, "I'll bet he beat defenseman Igor Kravchuk two or maybe even three times ... on the play."

The videotape shows the big-bodied Jagr zooming around Brent Sutter, Frantisek Kucera and Kravchuk ... maybe two times.

Jagr remembers it like it was yesterday.

"We were down 4-1 and I didn't think we had a chance because they were forechecking really well," Jagr recalled. "With five minutes left, we were down 1 and I got lucky ... and score a pretty good-looking goal and Mario won it with 15 seconds left. Even though it was the first game, I thought it was a pretty key game."

Jagr has 1,600 points, a couple of Stanley Cups, three Pearson Trophies and a Hart. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame after he retires. But there was always a sense that Jagr left a lot in his tank, that he was capable of more than what he achieved.

"Stopping Jagr and Lemieux," then-Chicago coach Mike Keenan would say of defending two separate lines, "was like stopping 1 and 1A."

The Kladno, Czech Republic, native, isn't so dominant now. Though, he flashes glimpses of those old days.

Bergeron and Jagr connected to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead in this year's Finals. On a five-on-three power play, Jagr had the puck deep in the right wing corner as the one Chicago penalty was just expiring. The assist moved Jagr into fifth place on the NHL's all-time postseason points list ahead of Paul Coffey with 197.

Like a quarterback who knew where the puck was going before the Chicago goalie Corey Crawford or their defenseman Brent Seabrook did.

"I knew it was coming," said Bergeron, who was stationed on the opposite side from Jagr. "Jags saucered it over Seabrook's stick ... I didn't think it would be coming to me so fast ... I bobbled it for a split-second, before hitting the open net."

You remember it ... like 1992 ... like in the Pittsburgh series, when Jagr outmuscled the puck away from a defender, then chipped it along the Brad Marchand, who hit Bergeron for a double-overtime victory in Game 3 of the Bruins sweep over the Penguins.

When he broke in with the Penguins in the early 1990s, Jagr was one of the generation's greatest players -- which included the golden era that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic.

"The first years that I won it, especially the first year -- I was 18 and didn't speak much English," Jagr said. "It was the first time I was away for 10 months from my country -- probably it was even longer than 10 months because I had to go right after the draft. I was kind of homesick. We were winning and winning and winning and then we went to the Cup.

"When you are young, you don't really think about how tough it is. Obviously you have to be on a good team, but you can be on a great team and it is no guarantee you're going to get into the Final. You've got to be injury-free and your top players have to play the best hockey in those two months."

So in those Pittsburgh days Jagr's mom moved in with him. Home-cooked meals. She made living away from home not so hard to live with. Besides, caused you knock on the Jagrs door as ask Mrs. Jagr whether Jaromir can't come out to play.

Coming into this year's finals, it wasn't just Bergeron who was looking forward to Jagr again being in the Finals again.

"It's pretty amazing," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "He was probably one of my favorite players when I was a kid. I think I wore No. 68m when I was playing summer hockey a couple summers. I had his Koho Jagr stick. I looked up to him. Now here I am getting a chance to play against him in the Stanley Cup Finals. That's pretty amazing."

It was just two years after Jagr returned to the NHL from the Kontinental Hockey League. He played there for three years, before returning to Philadelphia in 2011-12. He signed with Dallas this year, before joining the Bruins.

Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan was actually one year older than Jagr. But his mind was ...

"For Jags, he's got some great ideas that he's implemented, but we've also talked about some things that we need in his game as well," said Gulutzan. "He’s completely on board.

"I remember he had two goals in a game one night and he pulls my pant leg on the bench and says, 'Make sure we have two centers on the ice,' and he was taking himself off. It shows the kind of mentality and mindset he has."

When Boston GM Peter Chiarelli acquired Jagr, he liked it to Mark Recchi before the 2011 season.

"You don't have to be the guy, but you're an important piece and you band together with your teammates," said Chiarelli. "You've got the experience. You’ve got a certain skill set, size, whatever you call it, that will benefit the rest of the group. But one, you have experience ... and you want to win still.

"That was an important question. And he was very receptive to that."

Chiarelli added, "His career speaks for itself. He's a strong player, protects the puck well. It's consistent with our style in the sense that there's a cycle element to his game. He's good on the half-wall. Really good release, shot. He's just a really good player."

A potential free agent when this season ends, Jagr know this could be a one-time affair.

"I like to have fun," Jagr said. "Obviously, the American media, they don't really know me that much, but the Czech media knows I like to have fun. I like to joke around all the time. I know it is not easy to be 41, but I don't think age is a matter. As long as you love the game, and you're willing to work hard every day more than the other guys, you can play.

"When I had the long hair, I wouldn't say it was the style, but I wasn't the only one who had it. There was a lot of guys. Maybe not that long, but it was a lot of guys. Right now it is a different style, but it is going to come back. Everything just comes back. Ten years, you're going to see guys with that hair."

Jagr see some humor in that. Just as he does his age.

"I don't think age matters," Jagr said. "As long as you love the game, and you're willing to work hard every day more than the other guys, you can play ...

"See you guys are surprised ... Your surprised I'm still alive."

The doctrine according to Jaromir Jagr.

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