In Dallas a few days after Christmas, Washington Capitals linemates Jaromir Jagr and Adam Oates sat down “to get a few things straightened out, how we’re going to play,” Jagr recalled.
Remembered Oates: “We talked for a while about all the frustrations we’ve had this year. It’s good to clear the air, to communicate.”
It may be a conversation the Caps remember for a long time. Since that meeting, both players have gone on a seven-game point streak that continues going into tonight’s game against Toronto at MCI Center Jagr scoring three times and collecting 11 points, Oates scoring twice and assisting on six more. Obviously, such meetings should become mandatory.
What has been happening is that the transitional process, coupled with a knee injury that appeared to slow Jagr since his arrival from Pittsburgh, seems to have run its course. He is playing more and more like the blockbuster find of the summer, like the guy who skated the Caps dizzy for more than a decade.
“I feel a lot better than I felt before, that’s for sure,” Jagr said yesterday. “We’re not winning and that’s not good; it would be a lot better if we were winning. You don’t have that much pressure, you can play a lot looser. It would be a lot different if we were 10 games over .500, you can do a lot of stuff for the fans. Now every game is important to us.”
The Caps are still stuck in neutral, unable to plow forward while the defense has been surrendering goals by staggering measure, some of which can be blamed on a series of injuries that have left the team vulnerable along the blue line. The offense is scoring more but not enough to compensate for the porous defense.
But these were problems that weren’t going to happen again once the Caps landed the Czech national hero, or so the story line went. The scoring machine with something to prove was going to carry the Caps to the top, and the team’s worries were over.
“It’s hard for reality to beat expectations,” said general manager George McPhee. “Everybody was thrilled when we acquired Jagr, and they should have been. But this game has always been about playing well as a team. It took him a while to adjust, and the knee injury affected his conditioning and play. Now he’s healthy and competing hard, and when he does he’s as good as you’ll ever see.”
Said Oates, who has been traded four times himself: “He seems a lot happier now, and that’s what I was talking about, how frustrating it must be for him coming from another city, another team. We’ve got 20 guys here who really don’t know his personality, but he is the franchise and we want to know him, want to get adjusted to him.
“For me, I just wanted to try to get to know the guy a little better because he always seemed so down and he was putting so much of what was happening on his own shoulders. This is a team game, one guy can’t do it all either way.”
With Pittsburgh, Jagr won two Stanley Cups and five NHL scoring titles, the last four in a row. But it appeared to be a situation where no matter what one accomplished, it was not enough. And there was that other guy in town, too. Jagr asked out.
“I don’t mind people putting pressure on me that I should play good,” Jagr said. “That’s my job to do that. The reason why we play bad is just me. I know if I play good, if I play the way I’m able to play, we’re going to win a lot of games. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s got to be. I should be the guy who should be able to change a game, and most nights [this season] I wasn’t the guy. But the last 10 games I play a lot better. I start working harder than I ever did and hopefully things will get better and better.”
There hasn’t been any one game or two that signaled Jagr’s arrival; he has sort of sneaked up on people, getting better slowly game after game until it was impossible to miss. He is competing more, using his 240 pounds to battle for loose pucks.
“I think he’s coming to terms with what he has to do in our lineup to be successful, how to play off his teammates and what we’re trying to accomplish,” said coach Ron Wilson. “He’s worked hard, and he’s been ready to play in all these games recently.”
Jagr recently noted with some disdain that the team had reached the halfway point and still hadn’t gotten over the .500 mark. But he added that there were still a lot of games left and gave you that “I know something you don’t know” smile.
Notes Defenseman Brendan Witt (sprained right thumb) practiced yesterday but said the pain was still too severe for him to play tonight. He did not rule out tomorrow night in Florida. … Both Jagr (slight groin strain) and Peter Bondra (flu) missed practice Bondra didn’t even leave his house but Wilson said “those guys will play” against Toronto. Bondra missed Wednesday’s game against Columbus.