Jagr's tough NHL season doesn't carry over to OlympicsPosted: Saturday February 16, 2002 8:18 PM
Updated: Sunday February 17, 2002 4:12 AM
Jagr grinned widely as he stepped onto the rink at the Peaks Ice Arena for the Czechs' opening match against Germany on Friday night -- Jagr's 30th birthday.
He joked with teammates Patrik Elias and Robert Reichel. He shot a few pucks at Dominik Hasek. He talked strategy with linemate Robert Lang. Moments later, he had the best game of his international career, embracing the leadership role expected from the Czechs' new captain in their quest for another gold medal.
Jagr, playing the kind of hockey that makes him the game's best player when in top form, had two goals and two assists in the Czech Republic's 8-2 victory over Germany. His four points were one fewer than he scored during the entire 1998 Nagano Games.
From the moment he scored the Czechs' first goal, with a wicked wrist shot on a first-period power play, it was clear Jagr was much more comfortable skating with his countrymen than with his new NHL team, the Washington Capitals.
"We wanted to make sure we scored the first goal, because if you don't, any team can be very dangerous," Jagr said.
Jagr took that responsibility upon himself -- something he hasn't always done during his remarkable career. As fans in Pittsburgh and Washington already know, the five-time NHL scoring champion has transcendent abilities, but he hasn't always thrived under spotlights.
He won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, but couldn't lead the Penguins to a championship without Mario Lemieux. Four years ago in Nagano, he had just five points, often appearing overwhelmed and overexcited as Hasek carried the Czechs to gold.
This winter, Jagr has struggled under the burden of an eight-year, dlrs 88 million contract with the Capitals, who expected him to be a savior after acquiring him in an off-season trade.
It hasn't happened. Jagr has scored 18 goals while fighting injuries and criticizing his teammates -- most recently on national television during the NHL All-Star Game.
Those who know Jagr describe a sometimes delicate mental state that belies his punishing game. But on the day he turned 30, Jagr played and acted as a mature pro capable of doing what's necessary for his team to succeed.
"He is probably the best player in the world, and he played like it tonight," German forward Marco Sturm said. "Everybody knows what he can do, and we couldn't stop him from doing it."
Jagr refused to comment specifically about the responsibility he feels to help the Czech team win gold, particularly given his sub-par NHL season. Like any good captain, he emphasized the importance of team play.
"If you win one game, you don't think you're the best team in the tournament," he said. "There's a lot of great teams. We just want to make sure we play the best hockey we can play and get ready for the playoff round."
Though he hasn't played for the Czech Republic since Nagano, he takes national pride very seriously. As all Jagr fans know, he wears No. 68 on his uniform to commemorate the "Prague Spring" of 1968, when the Soviet military crushed a liberal movement in Czechoslovakia.
The defensive trapping system that allowed Hasek to stop all but six goals in six games in Nagano was barely needed against the Germans, who were unable to advance the puck into the Czech Republic's zone for minutes at a time.
On the other end, Elias and Martin Havlat scored exceptional goals, while Lang had a goal and two assists. But everything came back to Jagr, who controlled the puck with the grace and skill of a superstar still in his prime.
"I turned 30, but the most important thing was to have a good start in the tournament," Jagr said. "Everybody says when you have a birthday, it should be the easiest day to play [with] all that positive energy. I feel pretty good."