STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: Bruins' Jagr set to return to Pittsburgh
WILMINGTON, Mass. — The speed and scoring touch that made Jaromir Jagr one of the NHL’s best players are gone. Even the famous mullet that flowed from beneath his helmet disappeared many moons ago.
But his passion for hockey remains.
Now he’s bringing that back to Pittsburgh, the city where he won Stanley Cups in his first two seasons. More than two decades later, the 41-year-old right wing can help the Boston Bruins win their second title in three seasons.
First, they must beat the offensively potent Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. The first two games are in Pittsburgh, with Game 1 scheduled for Saturday.
“I don’t really remember the last time I was in this position,” Jagr said after practice Tuesday. “It doesn’t happen very often and the players should realize that. It’s not automatic to make the playoffs or automatic to be in the last four teams to play for the Cup.”
Jagr was just 18 when his rookie season began in 1990. He was on the Penguins team that beat the Bruins in six games in the conference finals. A year later, Pittsburgh swept Boston in the same round, winning the first game on Jagr’s overtime goal. The Penguins went on to win their first two Cups those seasons.
Way back then, he didn’t concern himself with how long he might keep playing.
“I don’t think you think that way at all,” he said, but “if you love something, it doesn’t matter what it is. If you love your job, you love your wife or somebody or something, you just want to be with that all the time. So, to me, I love this game. So as long as I can play, I want to play. That’s the reason I’m playing. I just love it.”
That desire has taken him to six NHL teams, with a three-year break from 2008-11 to play in Russia. He brought it to the Bruins, who needed an offensive boost, when they obtained him from the Dallas Stars on April 2.
But Pittsburgh is the city where he established himself.
“A lot of people still remind me (of) that, but it happened 13 years ago, the last time I played for them,” Jagr said. “So it’s a long time and 23 years ago was my first game.”
But what if someone had told him when he was starting out that he’d be playing for the Bruins against the Penguins in the playoffs all these years later?
“I don’t think anybody would have told me that,” Jagr said with a laugh. “I was 18 years old so I didn’t think that far ahead. I was kind of thinking, ‘What’s going to be tomorrow?’ not ‘What’s going to be 20 years later?’”
He’s already won a playoff round this season against a former team. The Bruins won the conference semifinals in five games over the New York Rangers, where Jagr set the club’s single-season record with 54 goals in 2005-06.
Bruins fans haven’t seen that scoring skill all that often.
Jagr scored just two goals in 11 regular-season games and none in 12 playoff games for Boston.
“I always love to score. Nothing is going to change me,” he said. “Maybe something great’s going to happen a little later.”
It’s not as if he hasn’t come close.
“I think it’s unfortunate that his numbers don’t reflect his play,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “I can remember twice, he’s got the open net, right next to it, and gets robbed twice. It’s got to be a little frustrating for a guy like him.
“He’s there. He’s in the right position.”
With his big body and vast experience, Jagr still controls the puck while shielding opponents from it until he can make a good pass. When he was moved up from the third to the second line during the playoffs, his new linemates, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, started producing.
“He’s made a lot of good things happen with that line,” Julien said.
And Bergeron expects Jagr to score soon.
“It’s right there. The goals are coming,” Bergeron said. “He’s an amazing player. I’m learning a lot. You need to learn where to be on the ice with new linemates.”
The Penguins certainly aren’t taking him lightly — not one of the greatest players in their history.
“He’s still got that good ability to get a shot off in tight spaces,” Pittsburgh forward Sidney Crosby said. “So, yeah, I definitely think he’s still a threat out there.”
Brenden Morrow was Jagr’s teammate with Dallas this season until being traded to Pittsburgh on March 24.
“He’s still just as excited as any 18-year-old in the locker room,” Morrow said. “His skills are still there. His big body’s tough to move when he’s planted and has possession of the puck. He played real well for us in Dallas, scored some big goals.
“He’s a threat every time he’s on the ice.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, just 17 months older than Jagr, agrees.
“I don’t look at birth certificates,” he said. “He’s still got game, maybe not the same hair as he did when he was in Pittsburgh, but he’s still got game.”
A game that — as it did 22 years ago — can still help a team win a Stanley Cup.
“We knew what we were getting out of a 41-year-old (future) Hall of Famer and that was that he was going to be solid,” Julien said. “He’s been nothing but a great asset.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh won all three games it played against Boston this season, all by one goal. ... Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference returned to practice after missing the last seven games with a lower body injury. Julien said he wasn’t ready to say Ference would play in Game 1 if he’s healthy.