If you want to know why the Boston Bruins are on the verge of making their second Stanley Cup final in two years while the Pittsburgh Penguins are fending off calls for the coach’s head and a roster blow-up, look no further than their 41-year-old wonder man, Jaromir Jagr.
Four months ago, Jagr was the sad consolation prize the Bruins picked up from the Dallas Stars when they were spurned at the last minute at the NHL trade deadline by Jarome Iginla. He was the premier power forward available but Iginla chose the Penguins, figuring their long list of skilled players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang gave him the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup at the age of 35, once the Calgary Flames determined they had to part company.
This is not to say Iginla, who is not exactly tearing it up in an Eastern Conference final his new team trails 3-0 to the Bruins, would have fit in any better than Jagr with the Bruins under the coaching of Claude Julien. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that somewhere in the past four years when Jagr’s hockey career appeared to be ending with a whimper in Russia, he saw the need for change and dedicated himself to it. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky wunderkind who could score at will and was Mario Lemieux’s designated successor a generation ago with the Penguins, before a bitter divorce that has him booed in Pittsburgh to this day.
Jagr was a big part of those Lemieux teams that won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 in the last years of the NHL’s previous run-and-gun era. He could dangle with the best of them but by 2009, when Crosby won his first and so far only Cup with the Penguins, Jagr looked to be playing out the string in the Continental Hockey League.
One day, though, Jagr realized he may no longer have the consistent hands that could produce as many as 62 goals in an NHL season but at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds he still had the size that was coming back into vogue in the NHL. General managers, such as Peter Chiarelli in Boston, decided the best way to beat the fast, skilled teams such as the Penguins, which flourished with the offensive-minded rule changes following the 2004-05 lockout, was the old hockey belief that a good big man beats a good small man every time.
“You’ve got to move with the changes and the trends,” Chiarelli said just before the playoffs started. “We’ve got a real good foundation and we’ve had success.”
Chiarelli assembled a roster with speed and size, one without superstars, perhaps with the exception of towering defenceman Zdeno Chara. Julien was able to implement his system of rolling four forward lines that could all contribute at both ends of the ice backed by a defence that allows no second scoring chances and a superb goaltender in Tuukka Rask who covers up any mistakes.
The result was the 2011 Stanley Cup title and the usual form of flattery in the NHL – imitation. The Los Angeles Kings won the following year with the same style. It is no coincidence that three of the four teams remaining in this year’s conference finals – the Bruins, Kings and Chicago Blackhawks – all play the bruising game with a dash of skill.
“I think the last two teams that won the Stanley Cups play great team games,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said Thursday. “They get a contribution from everybody in the lineup. It’s not about one player.
“You have to be able to play a 200-foot game. You have to be disciplined in all three zones. Stay out of the penalty box. You can play a physical game without taking penalties.”
While this was going on, it is hard not to conclude Jagr was watching closely and also changing his ways. Once the irrepressible kid who seemed to take nothing seriously, Jagr is now famous for his punishing workouts that keep him one of the strongest players in the league and buy him a few more years in the game he obviously loves. The work got him back into the NHL in 2011 at 39 with the Philadelphia Flyers (Jagr had a hand in knocking off the Penguins in the first round a year ago) and he may have a season or two left in the tank.
“He’s so good with the puck and he’s so strong it’s hard to take the puck off him,” said Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk, who added he and his teammates never concerned themselves with the question of settling for second-best when Iginla chose the Penguins.
“It’s nonsense to even think about it now,” he said. “Your head should be somewhere else now.”
While most of his teammates will put in a little time on the exercise bike after a game and then head home, Jagr lingers in the arena for hours with the Bruins strength coach, working out in a weighted vest and with weights around his ankles.
Jagr now avoids reporters after years of seeing his quips and misadventures off the ice make headlines. He was coy Thursday when people were wondering if he worked out after Wednesday’s double-overtime 2-1 win over the Penguins that went nearly four hours.
“No,” he said at first in a brief visit to the dressing room and then, showing his impish nature is still around despite the advance of middle age, added, “it’s easy to work out after the game. You’ve got adrenalin and everything.”
Before he took off, someone asked Jagr about the rumour he slept at the TD Garden after working out following the Bruins’ comeback win in overtime in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Jagr smiled again.
“No,” he said. “I’m invisible, man. Sometimes you can even see it during games.”
Whimsical as the answer was, there was a nugget of truth there. At his age, Jagr is not a factor every night. But he always seems to show up when it’s needed, such as stealing the puck from Malkin to set up Patrice Bergeron’s winning goal in overtime early Thursday morning.
It is all part of Jagr’s willingness to change his game from scoring diva to whatever is necessary to help his team. And don’t think his teammates don’t notice.
“I think he’s got that experience, I guess, to always be at the right place on the ice,” Bergeron said. “On that play it’s just a perfect example that he’s buying in and he wants to help in any way he can. That play right there, we don’t get a goal if he doesn’t make that play.
“It just explains that everyone is buying in. It doesn’t matter what it is and who it is, and Jags is a perfect example. He’s pretty much a legend, he’s a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame at some point, and he’s doing the little thing right there just to fight for the puck. You notice that as a teammate and it goes a long way.”