Friday, December 30, 2011

In the end, Jagr really hasn't changed

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Philadelphia Flyers' Jaromir Jagr (68) clears the puck before Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal (18) can reach it in front of a wide open net, with Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, top, knocked out of the goal crease in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011. (AP)

Jaromir Jagr is 2-0 against the Penguins this season. He scored the biggest goal in the Philadelphia Flyers' 4-2 win Thursday night at Consol Energy Center. He has been great all season with 12 goals and 19 assists in 32 games. He has been huge on the power play with five goals. By all accounts, he has been just as great off the ice. Coach Peter Laviolette mentioned him as being big as a leader in the Flyers room in the absence of captain Chris Pronger, who's out for the season with concussion-like symptoms.

The Penguins still are better off without Jagr.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it, ridiculous as it must seem on the day after Jagr and the Flyers were the better team for the second time in three weeks, this time, thanks in large part to Jagr's goal, which put the Flyers ahead to stay, 2-1, in the second period, and an empty-netter at the end by old pal Max Talbot.

"Why worry about a 40-year-old guy? The biggest mistake [Penguins] management made [during the summer] was they should have signed Max," Jagr said after the game in a fairly typical, disingenuous moment.

The Penguins couldn't match the Flyers' five-year, $9 million offer to Talbot, and Jagr knows it.

But his quote made for a good sound bite and made a lot in the media giggle.


We saw the always moody Jagr at his best and worst during his two-day visit. Wednesday, he was short and surly when he met with the media. Perhaps his corn flakes were stale that morning. Something as simple as that used to ruin his day frequently when he played with the Penguins more than a decade ago and begged repeatedly to be traded. Thursday, after the morning skate, he was congenial and expansive even if what he said made little sense and, in some cases, were out and out lies.

The Penguins flirted with Jagr before he signed with the Flyers. He said no one in the organization would guarantee him a job as a top-six forward. Lie No. 1. Owner Mario Lemieux, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma all told him he figured prominently in the team's plans. Jagr also said no one told him he would be used on the power play. Lie No. 2. The Penguins were coming off a 1-for-35 performance on the power play in their first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team's brass made it clear to Jagr he would be a key part of the power play.

But that's Jagr.

He often has had problems with reality.

Things are going well for Jagr and the Flyers now. You wonder how he'll be when things aren't going his or the team's way. How will he be if the puck stops going in for him or if his ice time gets cut? Maybe he really has changed, if you believe Laviolette. But I'm not buying it.

There's no doubt Jagr still can play in the NHL. He still has the vision, the hands, the wheels -- all of it -- that will put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame the instant he becomes eligible. He clearly showed it when he beat Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with a terrific backhanded shot, the second of three consecutive goals by the Flyers, who beat the Penguins, 3-2, Dec. 18.

But Jagr turns 40 on Feb. 15. He still must prove he can hold up over 82 games plus a long playoff grind. That worried Penguins management even more than his many moods. We'll see.

Jagr's return after the events of the summer made this the season's most-anticipated game. Certainly, it brought out the beautiful people. Governor Tom Corbett was among the crowd of 18,602, a guest in Lemieux's box. Lemieux interrupted a family vacation in Florida to come back for the game.

The sight of Jagr also brought the predictable hostility. He was booed even before the teams took the ice for warm-ups when he was shown on the arena's big scoreboard. He was booed each time he touched the puck in the game, although it wasn't any worse than the treatment Marian Hossa received when he came back to town in February 2009 after jilting the Penguins for the Detroit Red Wings the previous summer.

Talbot, who received a nice tribute on the scoreboard early in the game as a thanks for his years of service here, called the atmosphere "electrifying ... The fans showed up tonight and they were ready. It was like a playoff game."

Jagr wasn't nearly so moved. Then again, he didn't get any such tribute.

"The most important thing is we won in Pittsburgh," Jagr said. "This is a tough place to play. They are a very good team."

The crowd didn't like seeing Jagr's goal and really didn't enjoy him taking off his right glove and saluting after he scored it. It's funny, Penguins fans used to love the gesture when he was scoring goals for their team and helping it to Stanley Cup wins in 1991 and '92.

"I don't know how many goals I'm going to score," Jagr said. "Every goal might be my last one. I'm going to enjoy each one."

Jagr said he said should have scored many more goals Thursday night.

"From the first shift, I had good chances. I probably had the most chances of any game this year. I could have scored five goals easily if I were good. Fifteen years ago, I would have scored five goals. Not now."

Jagr grinned.

He knew what he said sounded good and made people smile.

Too bad it didn't make him any less of a phony.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

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