Jagr responded with a strong second half, scoring 37 of his 57 points in the last 40 games of the season. In the playoffs he led all rookies in scoring, with three goals and 10 assists. He scored the overtime series winner in the Penguins' seven-game divisional semifinals against New Jersey, and Pittsburgh eventually went on to win its first Stanley Cup. Nice numbers, to be sure, but no one was putting Jagr's name in the same sentence with Mario Lemieux's.
That all changed last season. More comfortable with the language and more confident with his talent, Jagr played with such flair that someone figured out that Jaromir was an anagram for Mario Jr. His regular-season totals—32 goals and 37 assists in 70 games—weren't nearly as spectacular on paper as they appeared in the flesh. Screaming down the right wing, his long dark hair flopping behind his helmet, the lefthanded-shooting Jagr would time and again beat both defensemen like a pair of rented mules.
"He's a different type of player than the league has seen in a long time," says Scotty Bowman, who coached the Penguins last season and is now the team's director of player development and recruitment. "He has a lot of Frank Mahovlich in him. His skating style and strength make him almost impossible to stop one-on-one. A lot of big guys play with their sticks tight to their bodies and don't use that reach to their advantage like Jaromir does."
Bowman's difficulty last season was finding Jagr enough ice time. The Penguins started the season overloaded at right wing, with Joe Mullen, a former 50-goal scorer, and Mark Recchi, who scored 40 goals in '90-91, in addition to Jagr. "Jagr really got shortchanged on the power play," Bowman admits. Only four of Jagr's 32 goals came with a man advantage. "It got to be a problem. He would come to me, very upset. 'I don't play here next year. Too many stars here. I got agent of Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky. I go to San Jose. I be a star.' That's one of the reasons we traded Recchi."
With Recchi dealt to Philadelphia late in the season and Mullen injured, Jagr's ice time increased dramatically in the playoffs. If it hadn't, it's doubtful the Penguins would have repeated as Stanley Cup champs. When Lemieux had his left hand slashed and broken by Adam Graves of the New York Rangers in the divisional finals, Jagr simply took over for his hockey idol. In Game 5, with the series 2-2, Jagr scored on a penalty shot, then won the game with five minutes left by undressing defenseman Jeff Beukeboom before tallying the game-winner. Jagr finished off the Rangers in Game 6, again scoring the game-winning goal, and followed that by scoring in overtime against the Boston Bruins in the first game of the conference finals. That marked his third game-winning goal in a row and his fourth of the playoffs.
But his most sensational goal of the postseason came against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Cup finals. With five minutes remaining and the Penguins trailing 4-3, Jagr was cornered along the boards with the puck. From a standstill he beat one, two, three Hawk defenders while wriggling to the net and slid in the game-tying backhand. Then, with 13 seconds left, Lemieux scored the game-winner, and the Penguins went on to sweep the Blackhawks.
Afterward, Lemieux seemed to be grooming his successor. "Jaromir's probably going to be the best player in the world in a couple of years," he said.
In style, though, Jagr is something much different from Lemieux. "When Mario gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I put it?" says Bowman. "He'll pass the puck off and get himself in a better situation to score than he was in. When Jaromir gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I go with it? He reminds me of Maurice Richard in that way. They both played the off-wing, and both had so many moves I don't think either knew which moves they were going to do until they did them. Totally unpredictable."
"I just play," Jagr says. He doesn't even like to know the name of the defenseman he is going against. "If I see Chris Chelios is there, I think, I can't beat him. And I won't beat him. Better I don't notice. When you go one-on-one with good defenseman, you do same things as against bad defenseman. Sometimes, you get lucky."
Sometimes. And sometimes you get smart. Like when Jagr, the first week of training camp, amicably signed his new contract with the Penguins, saving himself from his death wish made last summer in Kladno: to be traded from the Stanley Cup champions to some cellar dweller on the seashore. Beach purgatory. Jagr's still young. He will learn. If he wants to be known as the best hockey player in the world, two rings times two are not enough.