WILMINGTON — Jaromir Jagr had just come off the ice after a spirited practice with the Bruins Tuesday morning at Ristuccia Arena. The 41-year-old winger was peeling off his sweaty gear when the media came pouring into the dressing room and began assembling in front of his locker.
With the fourth-seeded Bruins set to face top-seeded Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night, Jagr, who spent the first 11 years of his NHL career with the Penguins, helping them win Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992, anticipated why so many reporters were waiting to talk to him.
Jagr plopped down on the bench in his locker, and answered the first question before it could even be asked.
“Yes, I remember the last time I played in Pittsburgh,’’ Jagr said, breaking into a grin. “I remember the last time Boston and Pittsburgh played [in the Eastern Conference finals].’’
How could he forget? How could anyone?
Jagr, then a 19-year-old boy wonder who was cast as Mario Lemieux’s offensive sidekick, helped the Penguins score a four-game sweep of the Bruins in the ’92 conference finals. It propelled Pittsburgh to a repeat Cup championship.
“It was pretty nasty,’’ Jagr recalled of that series, one in which he scored three goals and had five assists. “But I remember that’s the way you have to play to be able to beat Boston. They were pretty tough, especially at home. I don’t know why but [Boston Garden] was the smallest rink in the NHL back then, and they knew how to play in a small rink.’’
Now Jagr will make a return engagement in Pittsburgh, where he will play upon a much bigger stage at the Consol Energy Center, the Penguins’ hockey palace where he was treated as a villain in last year’s playoffs when he showed up with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We played Pittsburgh in the first round,’’ recalled Jagr, who compiled 1-6—7 totals to help the Flyers defeat the Penguins in the quarterfinals, four games to two. “It was a pretty exciting series for the fans. It was up-and-down hockey, with a lot of goals scored. There was not much defense and I don’t think the goaltenders had a great series.
“It was high-scoring and everybody enjoyed it, but it was different. Here we are different team than in Philadelphia; we wanted to go offense against offense.’’
After Jarome Iginla scuttled a trade-deadline deal the Bruins had struck with the Flames and opted instead to go with the Penguins, the Bruins acquired Jagr from the Stars. It was a move that resulted in unforeseen dividends for the Bruins, who kept promising defenseman Matt Bartkowski, who had been part of the Iginla deal. Bartkowski got to stay in Boston and play alongside Jagr, one of Bartkowski’s favorites while growing up in Pittsburgh.
When Jagr was asked if it ever occurred to him that he might not be in Boston were it not for Iginla’s decision to go to Pittsburgh, he paused.
“That’s one way to look at it,’’ he said. “But if you start looking at it this way, you’re going to get crazy pretty soon. Everything kind of depends on other stuff. So, if I weren’t here, then Bartkowski wouldn’t be here, either, because he would be somewhere else.
“Maybe Boston wouldn’t be in this position, because when the defensemen got injured, he had played so well. There’s so many things, you just have to take the way it is right now.’’
Now both hope to make a triumphant homecoming to the Steel City.
“A lot of people still remind me of that,’’ said Jagr, who has played against the Penguins 43 times in his career with 21-20—41 totals, including three game-winning goals. “But it happened 13 years ago when it was the last time I played for them. So it’s been a long time.’’
It’s been longer still, it seems, since he’s scored a goal. Paired with Brad Marchand on a line centered by Patrice Bergeron, Jagr, who has 0-4—4 totals during these playoffs, knows he will need to improve his production.
“Of course, I would love to score. I always love to score,’’ he said. “That’s nothing that’s going to change. But sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s not going to come. Maybe there’s a reason for that.
“Right now I’m suffering, but maybe something great is going happen a little later. That’s the way you got to look at it. That’s how I try to look at it. Maybe that’s the reason it happened. That’s one thing to look at, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“But I’d rather not be scoring and still playing, than scoring and be home on a vacation right now.’’
“I’m not one to complain about his play, because we knew what we were getting out of a 41-year-old Hall of Famer,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “And that was he was going to be solid and not as fast as he was, but certainly he brought some good things to the team. We’re a team that likes to cycle and hang onto the puck in the offensive zone and he’s helped us with that.’’
Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference recalled how he played his first three seasons in the NHL with Lemieux and Jagr in Pittsburgh. “It was crazy, especially as a young guy coming into a situation like that,’’ Ference said. “They were head and shoulders above other people. Mario, you don’t know how insane the stuff he could do with the puck.
“Jags, I don’t know how many points I got off of him, probably almost all of them just giving him the puck. He’d want it. Playing with him then, coming out of junior, he’d give me trouble for not passing it to him. I’d say, ‘But you had two guys on you,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m good enough.’ So it’s true. Even if he had two guys on him, it didn’t matter.’’
Ference expressed the hope that playing the Penguins might spark Jagr.
“I want it to be storybook for him, obviously, to catch fire and go back there,’’ Ference said. “That’s what we all want. He’s still got such incredible skill and a brain for the game. You can see how many chances and how many good spots he put himself in against New York.
“He easily could’ve been our leading scorer in that series, but he had some pretty bad luck on some of the saves on some of the chances we had. As players, we all can see what pretty good positions he put himself in the whole series.
“You hope that this next one, he gets to reverse that luck and I think that’ll help us a lot.’’