Rangers defenseman Bruce Driver was pedaling an exercise bicycle furiously outside the New York dressing room after Game 2 of the playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, perspiration and a grin lending his face a soft glow. "I held Jaromir Jagr to one scoring chance," Driver said, index finger raised. "I did exactly what I said I would do." Driver's plan had been to put his stick between Jagr's legs whenever the Penguins right wing swooped to attack, and then do everything but ask him to cough. Driver was stripped to the waist as he rode the bike, a marked improvement from Game 1 when Jagr had undressed him entirely on the winning goal.
This is fabulous. A Penguins-Rangers series is less a playoff than a Robert Altman film: dense, noisy, crammed with fascinating characters and rife with subplots. Will New York captain Mark Messier carve his initials in Petr Nedved's neck? Will Messier or Mario Lemieux prove the more valiant leader? Who will ultimately benefit more from the preseason trade in which the Penguins sent Ulf Samuelsson and Luc Robitaille to New York for Nedved and Sergei Zubov? But as the Rangers and Penguins split the first two conference semifinal games in Pittsburgh last weekend, Jagr, the man whose curls dangle the way the puck does from his stick, had become the central figure of the second-round playoff. The Rangers knew if they could control Jagr on his flights of fancy hockey and force the jittery Penguins defensemen to handle the puck, they would win. On the other hand, if Jagr kept playing like a scriptwriter's hero, the Penguins might overcome their own defensive lapses—and New York.
Although Jagr should be impossible to overlook—his 149 regular-season points represent the greatest offensive output by a right wing in NHL history—he has often been lost in the shadow of Lemieux's inspirational return from Hodgkin's disease. Despite his 62 goals, Jagr somehow failed to win enough votes to be one of the three MVP finalists. Of course the NHL could invent other categories for Jagr, besides best-tressed. Best one-on-one player: Jagr. There are faster forwards who might embarrass a defenseman with their speed, but no one plays one-on-one in traffic the way he does. Best combination of skill and strength: Jagr again. The 6'2", 215-pound Czech is the first man to combine the traditional European attributes of slickness, nimble feet and goal scorer's hands with lower-body strength, allowing him to fend off checks and protect the puck. "He's a gorilla, strong as a horse," Penguins coach Ed Johnston says, offering his own vision of Jagr as a crossbreed. "I don't know anybody who's stronger on his skates."
Jagr has had impeccable one-on-one instincts since entering the league in 1990, but until two years ago, the stickhandling was art for art's sake. Too often, he would carry the puck brilliantly through the defense, only to wind up stuck in the corner with his options gone. The childlike exuberance is still there when he carries the puck, but now there is purpose, his puck-dance being part of the flow and not mere confection. Jagr plays hockey instead of keep away, relying more on his industrial-strength shot and his teammates.
This is all part of his maturation, which accelerated last season when he led the league in scoring while Lemieux took a sabbatical because of a herniated back muscle and his battle against Hodgkin's. The Penguins will not be Jagr's team until Lemieux retires, but Jagr has done fine as an understudy. "We gave Jaromir a lot of responsibility," Johnston says. "For the first time he understood he was one of the top players in the league. He matured. He even drives slower."
Johnston offers anecdotal evidence, though he may be stretching the truth. When the Penguins would land in Pittsburgh in the early morning after a road game, Jagr used to zip past Johnston on the highway "like a red streak," the coach says, adding a passable Roadrunner imitation. "He doesn't go 100 miles an hour anymore." Jagr is more circumspect. "The big difference between America and Europe is that there's no speed limit over there," he says. "That's an even bigger adjustment than the lifestyle."
Certainly Jagr was driving the Rangers crazy. In the 4-3 Penguins victory in Game 1, he blew two shots past Rangers goalie Mike Richter and inside the post and set up the winning goal in the third period on a two-on-four. At the end of a shift longer than the presidential campaign, Jagr carried the puck to the red line as a Rangers forechecker receded and, instead of dumping the puck into the zone and returning to the bench, decided to see where this adventure might lead. Jagr plowed on; turned Driver, a solid one-on-one defender, with an outside-inside move at the blue line; and drew the other defenseman to him, opening a lane for a pass that Lemieux tipped in on the backhand.
"Three guys turned away from him on that play," says Rangers coach Colin Campbell. "He was out there for 1:40 on that shift. He should have his wrists slapped for that, but he winds up creating the winning goal."
The next day Campbell seemed unsure how best to defend Jagr. As he walked back to the hotel from the Civic Arena after practice, Campbell was contemplating assigning a shadow, a personal escort for Jagr all over the ice. "The problem if I put a guy on him is that there are no guarantees we'll be able to handle him one-on-one," Campbell said. "Maybe we can stop him from scoring, but that won't stop him from setting someone else up. The kid looks like he's having so much fun out there. Maybe what we have to do is play a miserable, snot-nosed game so he doesn't have quite so much fun."
The Rangers played Jagr straight-up in Game 2. Campbell changed his lines and defense pairs on the fly, getting forwards Niklas Sundstrom and Jari Kurri and defenseman Samuelsson on the ice against Jagr's line. All Jagr had to show for an uncomfortable afternoon was one goal and one foiled breakaway.