- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

With eight games to go starting tonight in New Jersey, the Washington Capitals have a playoff berth within sight after a season-long struggle upward from near oblivion caused by so-so play, injuries, adjustments, trades you name it.

If you pay attention for a moment, Caps right wing Jaromir Jagr has something to say:

"This might sound stupid, but I'm glad [Calgarys Jarome] Iginla is far ahead of me," Jagr said. "Now I can concentrate 100 percent on the team. If it were closer and the media started talking about the scoring title, about me maybe winning five in a row, that stuff, then you'd start putting that in your head that you have a chance, and then you don't give 100 percent to team. I like scoring goals, but I'm glad I don't have a chance to win it."

That was a nice thing for Jagr to say, but it really wasn't necessary not to anybody who has been watching the Caps for the past several months. The sense has been that the club was looking for somebody to lead them on the ice, somebody who could move as if by magic and change the direction of a game single-handedly with one brilliant display, and Jagr showed up.

"He goes out there with determination," said goalie Olie Kolzig, who admits Jagr still owns him but now just in practice. "He gets the puck, he wants to go through three or four guys; if he loses it, he goes after it again. I mean, it's no coincidence why we're winning now. He's playing now the way I used to see him play when he was in Pittsburgh. He came back here after the Olympics and at least this is my slant maybe he figured he didn't win gold this time so he'd better get the Caps into the playoffs."

Coach Ron Wilson agreed, saying of Jagr, "Well, he is determined, but he's been determined for a while. I can't believe he carries people around the way he does. I'm not referring to his teammates, I'm talking about the players on the other team. He's doing most of the stuff he does with one hand held behind his back. And he still manages to make plays and be dominant. And he doesn't complain."

It actually was before the early February All-Star break, when Jagr finally started to feel completely healthy, that he started asserting himself like the best player in hockey, the one the Caps traded for. The knee injuries and everything else had been cured, and he was ready to turn it on. But he didn't really hit high gear until March 20, the day after team leader Adam Oates was traded to Philadelphia. That brought Jagr to the forefront.

"He wasn't saying too much on the bench when Oates was here," Wilson noted. "Obviously, he was playing really well on the ice, but since Oates left, Jags has taken a much more vocal leadership role during games. Without someone like Oates here, he views himself as the top player on the team and has asserted himself."

Jagr has never missed the playoffs and has won two Stanley Cups. The Caps are as close right now to holding down a playoff spot as they have been since Dec. 15, but close might not be good enough in two weeks.

"Hockey is important," Jagr said. "I want to have the most fun you can have, and you have fun when you're scoring goals as a team, winning as a team, because then you can celebrate as a team. Individual stuff, it doesn't mean that much. You win a trophy. You win a game and you celebrate with teammates, and right now we have to win all our games. It's fun this way. Somebody scores the game-winning goal with two, three minutes left and we jump all over each other. It's exciting, and exciting for the fans, too."

For the record, Iginla is 11 points ahead of Jagr in the scoring race; the Calgary player had nine games to play before last night, Jagr eight. The Caps wing is 12-9-21, plus-3 with three power play goals in his last 15 games.

Notes The lineup on defense tonight against the Devils probably won't be known until faceoff. Frantisek Kucera is probably out with a "stinger," damage to nerve endings in his neck, usually a short-term thing.

Sergei Gonchar, still feeling effects from a concussion, skated in practice and was fine until he tried a little contact toward the end. He admitted feeling somewhat woozy, not a good sign. If the defenseman feels OK, Wilson may let him dress and try to use him only on the power play.

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