TORONTO — As a 41-year-old, future Hall-of-Famer, and two-time Stanley Cup winner, Jaromir Jagr believed he had experienced the full spectrum of being a professional hockey player. That was before an illness knocked him out of the final two regular-season games.
“That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me,” Jagr said. “I couldn’t do anything for 5-6 days. I lost a lot of weight. I still don’t feel good. I’ve felt better every game. [Monday], I felt a little better. But I’m still not strong like I want to be.”
In retrospect, the flu-like symptoms contributed to Jagr’s flickering play in Games 1 and 2 of the Bruins’ series with the Maple Leafs. Jagr had two shots in each of the first two games. In the third period of Game 2, Jagr threw away a puck in the offensive zone that led to a James van Riemsdyk goal.
In Game 2, when any of the other three lines built up a rhythm, Jagr’s threesome brought that tempo to a halt. Or perhaps it was the frenzy of all those youngsters that made Jagr’s legs look like they were in slow motion.
“Maybe the first two games, young kids are crazy, skating up and down,” Jagr said with a smile.
In Game 3, Jagr settled into his pace. Jagr’s touch returned at the right time. The third line of Jagr, Chris Kelly, and Rich Peverley was one of the difference-making units in the Bruins’ 5-2 win. Jagr ripped off a team-high six shots in 14:53 of ice time. From his first shift, Jagr’s strength on the puck gave the line the offensive-zone time it lacked for the first two games.
“If you can imagine pushing up against that wall,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, pointing behind him inside the media room at the Air Canada Centre, “that’s what it feels like, because he’s that big and that strong.”
In the second period, Jagr scored his first point of the series. Jagr triggered the play by chipping a puck deep into the corner. Jake Gardiner was first to the puck, but Peverley buzzed in on the forecheck. Because of Peverley’s pressure, Gardiner hurried his reverse off the boards to partner Ryan O’Byrne.
Before O’Byrne could clear the puck, Jagr picked his pocket, considered his options, and spotted Peverley in front of the net. Peverley hammered home Jagr’s feed before goalie James Reimer could process what had taken place.
It was a top-line play by the Bruins’ third-line right wing.
“Listening to the Bruins talk, they thought he had a better third game,” O’Byrne said. “You know what? He’s a Hall-of-Famer. He’s a guy that, on most teams, I don’t think would be a third-liner. I’m sure that’s not a position he’s played in. He’s a dangerous player. He’s a big body. He protects the puck well. He’s a smart guy. Obviously he’s had a lot of success. He’s a guy that played well last night. We need to do a better job of containing him and keeping it away from him.”
The Bruins acquired Jagr from Dallas to fill the role he’s assuming now: creating offense on the third line, quarterbacking the power play, leading his teammates with his experience.
The Bruins ask their forwards to do more than those on other teams. They must steer opposing puck carriers, backcheck fiercely, collapse in the defensive zone, and go on the attack with speed in center ice. In the Boston system, Jagr is more of a freelancer than company man.
“When we got him, the thing we wanted to see from him was to play within his strengths,” said coach Claude Julien. “He’s strong on the puck. He’s great in the offensive zone. He makes things happen. One of the things we told him was, ‘Go out and do that. Don’t worry about anything else. Just do what you do best.’ We accepted that, as an organization, he was going to come in and do that. We weren’t going to ask him to change.”
The game has evolved around Jagr. In the 1990s, when Jagr was piling up points for Pittsburgh, the NHL featured big men doing their best to slow him down. From 2008 to 2011, Jagr said goodbye to the NHL to play on the bigger rinks of the KHL. The NHL Jagr has returned to for the past two seasons — Philadelphia in 2011-12, Dallas and Boston this year — is not the one in which he laid down the groundwork for his Hall-of-Fame career.
In one way, the speed of the NHL has made it hard for Jagr to keep up. But Jagr is now playing against smaller opponents who can’t grab and hook and hold him when he goes to work. Jagr’s trademark puck-protection game might be harder to defend now.
“You hear, ‘He’s older, he’s losing a step, he’s losing speed,’ ” Jagr said. “In my opinion, I don’t think I lost much. I’m 240 [pounds]. Everybody else is at 180. When I played 10 years, 15 years ago, everybody was 240, 230. It was a different game. Don’t forget that. I don’t think I’m slow for a 240-pound guy.
“On the other side, I have a huge advantage on the boards. I never had it before 10-15 years ago. Just look at those defensemen who played before. It was all 6-5, 6-4. The league has changed to the smaller and faster guys. You have a disadvantage on one side, but you have a huge advantage on the other side.”
This could be Jagr’s final reach for a third Cup, but Jagr acknowledges his hockey mortality.
Before Game 3, singer Scott Newlands belted out a rousing version of “O Canada” to electrify the Air Canada Centre. Jagr, who understands how little time he has left in the NHL, made sure to appreciate the moment.
“I’m not going to play many more games,” said Jagr. “Hopefully I will play another year or two. I would love to. But it’s not the same in Europe. You’ve got only 5,000 people. It was pretty special, especially in Toronto where people love hockey so much. Even in our city, in Boston. It’s something you have to enjoy. It’s special. It’s kind of an extra bonus for a hockey player, just to be part of that.”
If the Bruins can stretch out their playoff calendar, Jagr will have a beard to match the tangle of salad atop his head. Jagr’s whiskers will feature more salt than pepper. Jagr’s age, however, is not reflected in his game.
“You don’t look at him as a 41-year-old,” O’Byrne said. “He’s Jaromir Jagr.”