TORONTO — Ryan O’Byrne thought he had time. His defense partner, Jake Gardiner, had reversed the puck to him off the end boards in the left-wing corner. He waited for a second. Then anoth …
Before he knew what happened, Jaromir Jagr crept up behind him, poked the puck away, took two steps behind the net and made a quick pass out the other side. Rich Peverley slapped it home before goaltender James Reimer could react. Steal. Pass. Score. The Boston Bruins led, 2-0, on their way to a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” O’Byrne said. “He’s a guy that you need to be aware of on the ice.”
“That’s what experience does,” O’Byrne said.
This is what the Bruins hoped Jagr would do when they acquired him at the trade deadline. He’s 41. He’s slow. But he’s still strong and skilled and smart, and with more than 180 NHL playoff games on his resume, he’s savvy.
Asked about what he had done to O’Byrne, who has 10 percent of his NHL playoff experience, Jagr sounded like a thief in court. He pleaded innocent.
“I was skating by, and I had the puck on my stick, so I make a pass,” he said with a straight face. “Nothing special.”
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The truth is, Jagr was nothing special in the playoffs last year. He had one goal and eight points in 11 games for the Philadelphia Flyers, but the goal and all but one of the points came in a wide-open, six-game first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had only one point in five games as the Flyers lost in the second round to the New Jersey Devils and their relentless forecheck.
He seemed worn down by injuries and the NHL grind, which is what teams feared would happen when he came back to North America after three seasons playing a less physical game on a larger ice surface in the KHL. He spoke often about the adjustment, and he said then that he wanted to keep playing in the NHL because he thought he could be better. A workout fanatic, he wanted get lighter and quicker.
Is Jagr better now, or at least better prepared for a long playoff run? Remember, although he didn’t play 82 regular-season games in the NHL this season because of the lockout, Jagr still played a lot of hockey before the playoffs and had to adjust to new a team twice. He also has a lesser role now.
He played 34 games for the Kladno Knights, the team he owns in the Czech league – not nearly the same wear and tear, but wear and tear. Then he played 34 games for the Dallas Stars and 11 more for the Bruins. That’s 79 games. He played 73 for the Flyers last season. He is a third-liner at even strength and a specialist on the power play in Boston. He was a first-liner in Philly and Dallas.
Jagr was nothing special in his first two playoff games this year. He was coming off a case of the flu that forced him to do nothing for five or six days – not good for a guy who feels good when he’s working and bad when he takes a day off. He said he lost weight and muscles lost strength. He said he still doesn’t feel 100 percent, but “it’s coming back.”
And sounding like a wise old man, he reminded everyone this is not a sprint if you expect to play for two months. Asked about adjusting to the playoffs, he laughed and said: “Maybe first two games, because young kids are crazy and skating up and down. But it’s like a marathon.”
The beauty of this is that Jagr seems suited for Boston. Whether he has lost a step, the NHL has gotten faster or both, it doesn’t matter because, as teammate Nathan Horton said, “he slows the game down and sees the ice so well.” Though he isn’t a power forward delivering hits like Milan Lucic, he is a powerful forward at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. He fits a big, heavy veteran team that needs help on the power play and thrives along the boards.
“He may have lost a little bit of his speed, which is understandable,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “ But he hasn’t lost his hockey sense, his creativity and his skill level.”
You don’t need speed and snarl on the power play. You don’t need it to do what Jagr has always done well – use his ample hockey butt and long reach to protect the puck, creating space, inviting opponents to check him so he can read which why they cheat and spin off. You can fool young guys who grew up watching you but are still learning how to play against you.
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“He’s probably not one of the faster guys out there, but he’s deceiving down low,” said Leafs center Nazem Kadri, who was born Oct. 6, 1990 – the day after Jagr’s NHL debut. “Especially with how big his body is, it seems like it takes a couple minutes to skate around that guy.”
Jagr hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1992, when Kadri was 1-1/2. Asked what it would mean to win the Cup at this stage of his career, he paused. He said he didn’t want to sound bad. He knows he’s supposed to say it would mean everything, but he’s old enough to know how hard it is and how much luck is involved.
“For me,” he said, “it’s more special if I can help to make someone else happy.”
What makes Jagr happy is not winning the Cup, necessarily, but competing for it while he still can. He would like to play another season in the NHL, maybe two, before returning to the Czech league. But he’s a pending unrestricted free agent and has gray in his stubble.
Who knows where he will be next season, let alone the season after that? Who knows how many more NHL playoff runs he has? He enjoyed Monday night, the first playoff game in nine years at Air Canada Centre, with the starving fans waving their white giveaway scarves and roaring, with thousands more roaring outside the arena.
“I was actually thinking about it during the national anthem,” Jagr said. “You know, I’m not going to play many more games.”
He’s soaking it up. Everyone should soak it up – except, of course, the Leafs. While we watch, they better watch out.
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