Caps more balanced, but Jagr still fulcrum

Hockey: Sore wrist or not, Jaromir Jagr remains the go-to man for Washington as it opens its bid for the Stanley Cup.

Hockey

April 10, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When Jaromir Jagr joined Washington two seasons ago, the word went around the NHL that the Capitals would go only as far in the playoffs as Jagr took them.

That first year, the Caps didn't make the playoffs. It was a staggering underachievement that resulted in the firing of the coach.

When this season was about to start, under rookie coach Bruce Cassidy, the sentiment about the importance of the big right wing was still in place, as evidenced by a preseason remark from Jagr.

"The only thing I know is that if we don't make the playoffs this season, I probably won't be here next year," Jagr said.

Now, the Caps are in the playoffs. They will begin play tonight as the Eastern Conference No. 6 seed in Tampa, Fla., against the Lightning, the Southeast Division champion.

But even though a lot has changed for the Capitals - the team has more offensive punch and almost no one sees Jagr as having to load the franchise on his shoulders and single-handedly haul it to a Stanley Cup - one thing hasn't changed.

Jagr still says he has a responsibility to be at the top of his game in the postseason if the Caps are going to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I have to do my best," he said last week. "I do. Everybody does. There are expectations for me. People expect something good. I understand that. I expect something good, too.

"But it isn't just the same as it was. By far, I'm not alone. When I was injured, we still won. I think this team is a lot better than last year. And now, in the playoffs, the level is raised. Not only are the highs higher, but the lows are lower. And every player has to play his maximum."

Jagr smiled at his preseason remark. Rubbing the still sore wrist he broke last month, he added to his comment.

"Now, probably we have to do something in the playoffs," he said. "And I believe we can do good."

Over the past month, the Caps have pulled themselves together. They are playing well five-on-five. They've benefited from a last-minute trade that brought in left wing Sergei Berezin, adding scoring and improving the fourth line with his speed and offensive talent. They've also demonstrated an ability to rally in the closing minutes.

Now, it seems, the biggest issue is the Caps' special teams. The power play, supposedly a major asset, has been streaky and anemic at times this season, ranking 14th in the league. And the penalty-killing unit, a traditional Caps strong point, finished the season last in the NHL.

"I wish we knew why the penalty killing isn't working," said Caps general manager George McPhee. "The most important thing is to stay out of the penalty box.

"But, overall, we've evolved into the team we all thought we could be. We've played better, beating very good teams. I think we've settled on line combinations and a style of play that suits our club."

The Caps have 11 players with at least 10 goals apiece this season, which ties them for third in the NHL. They have a goalie, Olie Kolzig, who has been solid all season and seemed to get sharper down the stretch. And they have a defense that has played more soundly in the past three months, allowing more than three goals just seven times in the past 48 games.

Neither McPhee nor Cassidy says the team has to be carried by Jagr, though Cassidy added: "But over the playoffs, he and Olie have to be our leaders."

Jagr missed six games in mid-March with a broken wrist. At the same time, he had to deal with reports of a $3.3 million tax bill and a $500,000 gambling debt.

Back on the ice, his top assist man, Kip Miller, missed seven games with an upper-body injury. Both are working on reestablishing their timing.

Jagr, who said the wrist is still bothering him and forcing him to use two hands on the stick, has had moments of brilliance this season.

He leads the team in scoring with 36 goals and 77 points in 75 games. He was fourth in the league in game-winning goals (nine) and has been on a hot streak over the past 34 games with 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists), a run that includes a record-setting seven-point performance against Florida on Jan. 11. Since returning from his injury, Jagr has four assists in six games.

Team captain Steve Konowalchuk pointed to the Caps' offensive depth and agreed they can win without Jagr.

"But for us to get to the finals, he has to do his job," Konowalchuk said. "It's true for any team. The third and fourth lines are going to chip in and do their parts, but the big guns have to deliver."

No matter how great the expectations of others are for Jagr, his expectations appear to be greater.

"The fun is about to begin," he said.

When Jagr was asked if he is measuring up to the way he played in Pittsburgh and to his reputation as the best player in the world, he said, "It's not even close. When you reach some kind of level, you want to stay there or get better and better. I'm not doing that right now. But that doesn't mean it can't start to happen."

And to the question of whether he is handicapped by the Caps' system, he said, "You can average two points a game in this system if you are good enough. The chances are there."

And if he's had a good season:

"Ask me after the playoffs," Jagr said. "There have been some good moments, but do you think I want to be remembered for seven points against Florida? In Pittsburgh one year, I scored 127 points and won the Art Ross Trophy, but in the playoffs, we were not very good. So you ask me, did I have a good year? I say, `No, I had a bad season.'

"It's all a matter of how we're going to do in the playoffs. My goal is not to have made the first round. My goal is to go all the way."

Jagr in playoffs

Yr. Team GP G A Pts

'91 Pittsburgh 24 3 10 13

'92 Pittsburgh 21 11 13 24

'93 Pittsburgh 12 5 4 9

'94 Pittsburgh 6 2 4 6

'95 Pittsburgh 12 10 5 15

'96 Pittsburgh 18 11 12 23

'97 Pittsburgh 5 4 4 8

'98 Pittsburgh 6 4 5 9

'99 Pittsburgh 9 5 7 12

'00 Pittsburgh 11 8 8 16

'01 Pittsburgh 16 2 10 12

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