- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Jaromir Jagr and Michael Jordan seemed like a package deal for Washington sports fans before their respective seasons began. They more or less arrived at the same time, Jagr being dealt from the Penguins to the Capitals last summer and Jordan trading in his role as the Wizards' president to return to the court.

It was the ultimate fan exacta, two of the biggest stars in their sports, decorating the local scene.

So when Jordan soared for the Wizards and Jagr was simply sore for the Caps, the inclination was to call Jordan's comeback a success and the Jagr trade a failure. You had Jordan scoring 40 points a game and the Wizards with a winning record and in the playoff mix, and you had Jagr getting sidelined with one injury after another a knee, a groin not playing well when he did get on the ice, and the Caps suffering through a shocking losing season.

Everyone was talking about Jordan. Everyone had forgotten about Jagr.

Now, though, at the end of their first seasons in Washington as they say, crunch time it is Jordan who is sore and Jagr who is soaring, and before all is said and done, Jaromir Jagr may be the name on everyone's lips in Washington.

Jordan called it quits this week when, after a two-point game against the Lakers in only 12 minutes of play, it became clear that his injured right knee could no longer take an NBA pounding. That may have ended the Wizards' playoff chances, although they are still within reach of the final spot in the East.

At the same time, Jagr helped lead the Caps to seven wins in nine games and had them poised to latch onto that final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Their scoreless tie last night against Ottawa at MCI Center left them one point behind Montreal for that playoff position with four games to play.

Just as the contrast between the success of one and the failure of the other seemed so stark in midseason, so do the differences now as their seasons come to a close.

"You can't judge a season until it is over," Jagr said. "I like a good finish."

Jordan is off the charts, and now the watch begins on whether he will play next season. But it may be Jagr who gives Washington fans what they hoped for when the two stars put on their uniforms last year.

This is not to belittle what Jordan has done. I think his comeback was an unqualified success for the Wizards. They will come close to doubling their 19-win total from last year and went a long way toward changing the way people viewed the franchise, both from within and outside. He hadn't played in three years, and came back to score 22 points a game with as weak a supporting cast as you will find in the NBA. If he plays next year, I think he'll even be better.

But there were unfair comparisons made this season to Jordan's success and Jagr's woes, so it is only fitting to take note now that the tables seem to have turned providing the Caps make the playoffs. If not, Jagr's resurgence will be a faint memory overwhelmed by the team's disappointing season.

Asked about the comparisons, Jagr replied, "I didn't listen to any of it. I don't read the newspapers, I don't listen to the radio and I don't watch much TV."

Caps coach Ron Wilson thought it was foolish to compare the two athletes, but he understood why it happened.

"It's all about instant gratification," Wilson said. "If something doesn't work in a month, then it's no good. I don't think they should be compared. It's totally different. But it was easy to do so because they are both in the same city."

It was tempting to do so because the Jordan comeback seemed to be working so well, compared to the Jagr trade. When Jagr was struggling, first with his injured knee and then with a groin injury, forcing him to miss 12 games, it played havoc with a Caps team already suffering from the loss of Steve Konowalchuk and Calle Johannson. And when you are as skilled as Jagr is, you not only need that game time to stay sharp but practice time as well.

"When you miss practices, it takes you longer to get back into shape," he said. "That is the key. If you are not practicing, then your timing, shooting, is all off. But now it feels good. The team is playing good; that's the bottom line. I think everybody feels good. There is a lot of confidence on this team now. Everyone is playing well."

When Jagr is playing well, everyone is playing well. Washington is 11-4-2 when he scores a goal and 17-6-4 when he scores a point. During the recent Caps surge, Jagr had a seven-game point streak and leads the team in points (74) and assists (44) this season (he is second in goals scored with 30, behind Peter Bondra's 39).

And Jagr has made his presence felt in the locker room as well as on the ice, particularly since Adam Oates was traded.

"He has been much more vocal since the trade," Wilson said. "You can look at it two ways one, that he stepped back because of what Adam's stature was on our team and within the league, and this was Adam's team, and it wasn't Jag's team. It was Adam's job to talk or not talk or whatever, and I'll be behind him. But once Adam was gone, this became more Jaromir Jagr's team."

If this is Jaromir Jagr's team, then the Caps may be the last team anyone would want to face in the playoffs. Jordan's Washington story has come to an end, at least for now. Jagr's story may just be beginning.

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