TORONTO — The NHL is a fiddler’s game now, which often makes Jaromir Jagr look out of place, an old man playing a different, old-world kind of music. The fiddlers fiddle, race and shoot, then race a little more, shoot a little more. Then there is Jagr, age 41, meticulously creating and crafting his own sheet music, his stick a Stradivarius.
“He may not have the speed he used to have,’’ noted Bruins coach Claude Julien, after watching Jagr post six shots and contribute a key assist in the Bruins’ 5-2 win over the Leafs Monday night at the Air Canada Centre. “But he still has the hands.’’
The Bruins now have a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series with the Leafs, and much of that advantage in Game 3 came because of Jagr and fellow third-liners Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. For a trio that looked abandoned on a Duck Tour Saturday night on Causeway Street, they were visible from the start here, especially when Peverley potted Jagr’s feed at 5:57 of the second period for a 2-0 lead.
Peverley and Kelly also combined to win 22 of 26 faceoffs, a stunning 84.6 percent success rate. Wins at the dot don’t jump off the scoresheet like David Krejci’s night (1-2—3) or even Milan Lucic’s night (0-3—3), but such is life on a third line. The Bruins rely on all four lines doing something, and the third line did something-plus, popping in that big Peverley goal when Jagr filched the puck away from Ryan O’Byrne behind the net and picking the pockets of Blue-and-White centers with ease. Nazem Kadri lost nine of 12 faceoffs and Tyler Bozak 17 of 29.
Of the three, however, Jagr’s performance stood out the most. He clearly entered the night intent on shooting, and he fired more than any other Bruin, placing those six shots on net, missing with two others, watching a third get blocked. A total of nine attempts.
“He still has a lot of skill,’’ said Julien. “He’s lost some of his speed, and he’ll tell you that. But he hasn’t lost his creativity. He hasn’t lost his hands. He’s a smart player who studies the game a lot. He knows his strengths and weaknesses.’’
His most obvious asset is not his shooting but his stickhandling. He has the size, reach, skill, and temperament to keep the puck tethered to his blade and look to make plays. All of that is virtually a lost art in the New NHL. As the speed has gone up, the skill has gone down, with few players showing the patience, aptitude, or skill to make or trade passes.
“He’s a great player,’’ said Peverley, the recipient of Jagr’s pinpoint dish to the right post, where Peverley only had to pop in a forehander for the 2-0 lead. “He’s always making plays and looking for guys out there. Amazing. He wasn’t with us before, so he didn’t know where we’d be.’’
Jagr is saying little these days. He has not talked with the media after any of the three playoff games. He was not available following Sunday’s workout. He needed time off down the stretch, suffering from flu-like symptoms, and did not play well in either of the first two games against the Leafs. No one really knows what the sure-shot Hall of Fame winger is thinking, or how he’s feeling, but it looks as if he’s warming up to his role as third-line contributor and part-time dazzler.
The first line of Lucic-Krejci-Nathan Horton did what it was supposed to do in Game 3, the trio combining for an impressive 2-6—8 line (Krejci’s goal was an empty-netter). The second line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Tyler Seguin didn’t pick up any points, but they combined for six shots and allowed the Leafs nothing at even strength. Fourth-liner/penalty-killer Danny Paille picked off a Phil Kessel pass late in the second period and raced in to pot a shorthander for the 4-1 lead.
In the manual of “Balanced Attack,’’ it doesn’t get much more balanced than that. The third line had been the missing link, the potential fatal flaw in the game plan. For a night, it played the part of difference-maker.
“It doesn’t matter how old he is,’’ said Julien. “He’s a real proud competitor. He was determined to be a difference-maker tonight and the other two [Kelly, Peverley] were more comfortable, too. He is so strong on the puck, and when he’s got it, it takes one or two guys to try to take it away from him. If it’s two, then that means someone is open. He can be creative . . . the way he’s always been.’’
There is a very long way to go in the 2013 Stanley Cup run. The Bruins have won two games, which means they are 14 wins and a million miles from a championship. They beat the Capitals three times last spring and then went home for the summer. But three games into the second season, Monday night had them at their best so far, save for a third period in which they were outshot, 18-5, forcing Tuukka Rask to work harder than perhaps he deserved.
If Game 3 is a true indication, and it probably is, we will see more of Jagr in the next couple of games, and as far as the Bruins go from there. At 41, he is closing in on the finish line, not knowing if he’ll continue in the NHL after this season or bolt back to play a year or two in the Czech League or maybe have a rerun with the KHL.
But for now he is a vital piece of what the Bruins are trying to do. He is the man with the Stradivarius, with an ear for fine play, and perhaps enough left to keep the dance going.