Jagr returns to scene of prime for Round Two
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It never has been easy to get a fix on Jaromir Jagr's emotions. One moment he's wearing them on his sleeve, opening up to a surprising degree. The next, he's taking it all back, denying, dodging.
Often, his expressive face belies his words. The grin as wide as a river and the deep, infectious laugh comes easily at times. Other times, his words might look upbeat on a page but are darkened by the cloud that shadowed their delivery.
Moody is the label the New York Rangers' captain got during his days as a spectacular right winger with the Penguins, although Jagr is likable.
"He's got a great personality," said Penguins winger Petr Sykora, a fellow Czech who played with Jagr half a season with the Rangers and on several Czech Olympic and national teams, and now rents Jagr's South Hills house.
Penguins fans and Jagr's Rangers teammates could find out tonight how he reacts to facing the club that drafted him for the first time in the playoffs. The teams meet at Mellon Arena in the opening game of their second-round Eastern Conference series.
It's difficult to tell how Jagr will respond to unforgiving Penguins fans, who apparently consider him a traitor and have booed him every time he has touched the puck here since he became unhappy and was traded away before the 2001-02 season.
"They've been pretty tough on him when he's played here in the past. I don't expect anything different with the emotion of the playoffs," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "As fans, they want to see us win and they want to do whatever it takes to give us that edge."
Asked about getting "the treatment" at times on the road, especially in Philadelphia, Crosby had a strong reaction, turning away, bowing his head and flashing a sheepish smile before regaining his composure.
"I can't speak for anyone else, but I think after a while you just kind of get used to it and you learn to play," Crosby said, then stifled another embarrassed smile before continuing, "but, yeah, I guess I've gone through that."
True to form, Jagr has wavered about how he feels about getting "the treatment."
After the Rangers downed New Jersey in the first round, when New York center Scott Gomez, formerly of New Jersey, got a lot of grief from Devils fans, Jagr told the New York Post, "It's not easy playing against your former team. I hate it. The booing, the bad energy, it takes something out of you. It affects you, even if you say it doesn't."
Which he then did Wednesday, when he told reporters he will use the booing as motivation in the series.
"I'm not going to cry about it," Jagr said.
Sykora figures Jagr is harder on himself than an arena full of 17,000 fans might be.
"He puts a lot of pressure on himself," Sykora said. "He wants to be at his best at all times.
"I know Jags. I think he can get this stuff out of his head. He's focused on hockey only."
That said, count Sykora among those who are put off by the way the city turned on Jagr.
"I don't understand why he gets booed here because he did some great things for the city," he said.
Jagr, 36, who was selected fifth overall by the Penguins in the 1990 NHL draft, was on the club's Stanley Cup champion teams his first two seasons.
The sure Hall of Famer is second all time in Penguins history in games played (806), goals (439), power-play goals (114), assists (640), points (1,079), playoff goals (65), playoff assists (82), playoff points (147) and playoff game-winning goals (14), and first in winning goals with 78, four more than the guy who tops all those other categories and owns the team, Mario Lemieux.
With the Penguins, Jagr won the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion five times and the Hart Trophy as league MVP once.
Although he was once tremendously popular locally and highly recognizable with a curly mullet, Jagr saw things unravel around the millennium, and he began to talk about seeking a trade.
The diatribe that seemed to alienate Penguins fans the most came after a 3-1 loss Nov. 28, 2000, at Boston, his fourth consecutive game without a point.
"I feel like I'm dying alive," he said. "Maybe something's going to happen pretty soon. I don't know.
"I just don't feel comfortable here right now. It's not the same for me right now. We'll see what happens. Maybe I'm going to think about retirement pretty soon. What else am I going to do?"
Retirement, or at least an exit from the NHL, might be close after what for him was a down season -- 25 goals, 71 points in 82 games after 15 seasons in a row with at least 30 goals.
Jagr, traded to Washington in the summer of 2001 and to the Rangers in January 2004, has kidded in that dark way of his that this might be his final NHL season.
That would mean his final bows -- or at least handshakes -- could come against the Penguins, possibly at Mellon Arena, if the Rangers lose this series.
After failing to meet numbers during the season that would have triggered a contract option, he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer unless he wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Around the end of the regular season, he met with Anatoly Bardin, general manager of Avangard-Omsk, the Russian Super League team where Jagr played during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Then again, perhaps he will be rejuvenated by a strong spring. He perked up with 24 points the final 23 regular-season games, including seven goals and an assist in the last five. Against New Jersey in the first round, he had eight points in five games.
"I think he's going to really be ready to play because he's coming into Pittsburgh," Sykora said. "He wants to prove that he can still play hockey."
First Published April 25, 2008 12:00 am