February 18, 2010
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Jaromir Jagr's(notes) first hockey game on North American ice since May 4, 2008, was a startling success. Well, after he remembered how to maneuver on an NHL-sized rink that's smaller than the Russian ice he's played on for the last two seasons.
"If I got used to it, it'd be a lot easier, because I don't have to skate that much. But I have to get used to it," said Jagr, who had two points and played 14:33 in the Czech Republic's 3-1 victory over Slovakia on Wednesday night.
"Like I told those guys: First period, I felt like a soldier in Iraq. I didn't know where the shots were coming from. It was tough. But I survived."
Good to see Jagr hasn't lost his allegorical gifts, either.
Jagr's first game in 15 days started slowly and painfully: He was hit from behind on his second shift, causing his stick to jam into his side. Jagr went to the bench and winced, but returned to the ice without missing a shift.
His linemates were Roman Cervenka, a leading scorer in the Czech league for Slavia Praha; and Petr Cajanek(notes), formerly of the St. Louis Blues and now of the KHL's SKA (Alexei Yashin's(notes) team), where he has 41 points in 49 games. They got better as Jagr did, and he improved with every period.
Jagr's partial breakaway goal late at 17:56 of the second was vintage, although without the speed he once had with the Pittsburgh Penguins to separate from defenders. He also made the big play on a goal by Tomas Plekanac of the Montreal Canadiens: Jagr corralled a missed shot from the power-play point, managed to get a shot on Jaroslav Halak(notes) from a bad angle in the corner, and the ensuing rebound was cashed in with two seconds left in the period.
He wasn't a force on every shift, but he was a presence, playing on the forecheck while his teammates hung back. Slovakia carried the play in the third period as the Czechs turned off the offense and attempted to bail out goalie Tomas Vokoun(notes), who played a strong game with 35 saves.
The third period was survival for Jagr and his team, which will be unacceptable when the Czechs face their arch rivals from Russia on Sunday.
"I don't want to talk about it right now," said Jagr. "We've got one more game before that. But we're probably going to face the best team in the tournament, if you don't count Canada."
A Russian reporter asked about the star power of Alex Ovechkin's(notes) team compared with the 1998 Nagano Olympic Czech team that beat the Russians for gold. Jagr acknowledged Russia's strength, but said there's more to victory than name recognition.
"It's great to have superstars on the team. And you guys have more than one. ... You have, like, two dozens," Jagr said.
"But, you know, it's still coming to the team play. If we play together as a line, we can shut down anybody. It's not the first time I'm going to face the best players in the world. Of course, they have the advantage: They're better players. But maybe in that particular night, they can be [defended]."
The Czechs announced their arrival in this tournament with an impressive win in what was, no question, the Winter Games' best hockey contest in 2010.
More importantly, Jagr announced his arrival back in North America. He knows the fans here are watching. He knows the NHL is watching. He knows the stakes go beyond potential hardware around his neck. In Game 1, he played like he knows all of this, and is ready to meet the challenge.