- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Under normal circumstances, tonight's game between Pittsburgh and Washington would be viewed as a chance for the Caps to gain some measure of revenge, the Penguins having done their usual bone-crushing job against Washington in postseason last April.
Not tonight. For Washington coach Ron Wilson, tonight is a chance for the Caps to try to bury their noses a little deeper in the playoff hunt an important game, little more.
To right wing Jaromir Jagr, it means a lot more. A year or so ago it just would have been game No. 52 in his career-long series against Washington. All that changed July 11 when he was traded to the Caps from Pittsburgh, the only other team he has played for in his 11-year career.
"I'm pretty excited about it," he said yesterday of the prospect of facing his former comrades for the first time in a different jersey. "And if we would play the way we played against the Rangers, it would be even sweeter."
Jagr was wearing a broad grin yesterday. It was the first time in awhile that a smile has been on his face. He has been on a roller coaster a superb game against the New York Rangers last Tuesday followed by two sub-par performances against Atlanta and New Jersey. He had seven shots on goal against the Rangers; he had a combined total of one against the Thrashers and Devils.
"Sometimes," said a Cap who asked not to be identified yesterday, "we look at him and wonder why he doesn't score two goals [a game]. I guess we do that because we don't want to look at our own performances."
Jagr helped Pittsburgh win two Stanley Cups, won five NHL scoring titles and was the Penguins' captain when Mario Lemieux retired. He came to the Caps after asking for a trade and has since signed a new contract worth at least $78 million, binding him to the team for seven years.
Lemieux, nearly one season out of retirement, will not play tonight while he recovers from recent hip surgery.
"It would be a lot nicer if Mario would play," Jagr said, "better for the fans. It's bad for the fans, bad for the Penguins, it's good for us."
The ride for Jagr has not been totally smooth. He was injured in the third game of the season, missed seven games and did not play up to his normal standard in others while recovering. He and the team have searched for linemates who create the best chemistry for the scoring machine; meanwhile, he has not scored a goal in his last seven games, matching his high from last season when he won his fourth straight scoring title.
Nonetheless, he is averaging better than a point per game, a fact often overlooked.
"There's always an adjustment to make," said Lemieux, the Penguins' owner and one of the best players ever. "It doesn't matter how great of a player you are, when you change organizations you have to get used to the other players, the coaching staff, a new environment. That's what's happening with Jags. Plus, he hurt his knee so that made it more difficult."
There is a tendency to view tonight's game as some kind of grudge match, Jagr vs. the Penguins or vice versa. But too much is at stake. A point or two gained now will have far greater meaning in April than a cheap hit in December. Besides, the Pittsburgh dressing room is filled with long-standing friends of Jagr.
"I know people expect me to do something like hit him or hurt him," said rambunctious defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. "I just want to play him hard and clean and shut him out. But that's not easy. That's a very tough assignment."
Does the prospect of having a Kasparaitis running into him worry Jagr? "No, I'm OK. I'm 240 [pounds]."
Said fellow Czech and close friend Robert Lang: "At least from my side, there definitely are no hard feelings. When you see a guy like that going away, it's a sad thing. Every time you have a chance to play with a guy like that … you should be grateful. It's something really special to say you played with the best players in the world. You have to treasure it."
Caps owner Ted Leonsis treasures his association with the star and said yesterday he would do the deal again "without hesitation." Leonsis possesses an ingredient many owners do not patience. It serves him well.
"The issue with Jagr is what concerns most superstars there are games when he appears to be playing on another level and simply dominates the play, and then there are games when he appears ordinary and people are left to wonder why he can't play at the dominate level every shift," Leonsis said. "Sales are still brisk, our growth is strong, the media attention is sky-high on a national basis and he has been easy to work with."
So what worries Leonsis?
"I am actually much more concerned with our defense and penalty-killing than I am with Jagr at this point in time."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide