Jagr feels at home with Caps

First time out of playoffs doesn't dim love of D.C.

Hockey

April 14, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The disappointment showed on Jaromir Jagr's face these last days of the Washington Capitals' season. But in the end he was smiling - a little.

"I love it here," he said. "The way I look at hockey has changed. Before I came here, I played to be the best and now I'm playing because I love it."

It is an almost miraculous evolution. At the end of last season everyone knew Jagr, the world's best player, would be traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he had spent his entire 11-year career. No one expected him to be traded to Washington, and when he was, everyone predicted it would be a difficult transition into coach Ron Wilson's defense-first game plan.

When Washington's season finally ended last night with a 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey at MCI Center, it could be officially said Jagr had proved himself a survivor.

After 11 straight years in the playoffs and two Stanley Cups, Jagr is missing the playoffs for the first time. But he performed admirably in his first season as a Cap while fitting in with new teammates, learning new styles of play, coping with his first career knee injury and finding the right linemates.

"The biggest problem," he said, "was ... on a new team, everyone has to learn about everyone else.

"During the season, you get injured, you try to play, but even if you play, you miss practice and you are not 100 percent. Everybody looks at you like this guy should play better. They say, `He's not playing the way he used to play.' In Pittsburgh, the guys there would have known how I am. Here it was starting over again.

"There are other teams I could have gone to where players come and go often and it would have been easier to fit in. Here, players don't get traded often. It is tough for the guy coming in to get in the groove and feel good in that groove. You have to wait for the other guys to let you in. It's hard. It was five months before I felt totally myself."

Wilson said Jagr's slow transition was predictable, but, "Our record indicates what we would have been without Jags," Wilson said. "Without him, we were 4-8-1. We're six games over .500 when he's been healthy. And it's not just how he's playing, but how we're perceived when he's not playing. When he isn't there, opposing teams think they can crank it up because we're not scoring."

Jagr was the Caps' leading scorer with 31 goals and 48 assists. His 79 points in 69 games is tied for fourth in the league with Colorado's Joe Sakic and his numbers could be projected to have been among the top three in scoring had he played all 82 games - despite assimilation difficulties.

"The last month has been the most fun I've had," Jagr said. "It's too bad it came to a bad end. But everyone is loose, the way it should be. Even though practice was harder, you wanted to stay longer. Practice ends and you stay 45 minutes more because you like it."

Jagr went through a series of linemates and wound up the year with Chris Simon at left wing and Dainius Zubrus at center. It is a combination both he and Wilson like.

"With his size and skill, he's one of the best [linemates] I've had," said Jagr, comparing Simon to a young Kevin Stevens. "And Zubrus, he plays well already and it is not even his position."

Jagr paused. He believes the Caps simply ran out of time.

"Everyone," he said, "should remember our last month, how much fun it was and start next season the same way."

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