Rangers defenseman Bruce Driver was pedaling an exercise bicycle
furiously outside the New York dressing room after Game 2 of the
playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, perspiration and
a grin lending his face a soft glow. "I held Jaromir Jagr to one
scoring chance," Driver said, index finger raised. "I did
exactly what I said I would do." Driver's plan had been to put
his stick between Jagr's legs whenever the Penguins right wing
swooped to attack, and then do everything but ask him to cough.
Driver was stripped to the waist as he rode the bike, a marked
improvement from Game 1 when Jagr had undressed him entirely on
the winning goal.
This is fabulous. A Penguins-Rangers series is less a playoff
than a Robert Altman film: dense, noisy, crammed with
fascinating characters and rife with subplots. Will New York
captain Mark Messier carve his initials in Petr Nedved's neck?
Will Messier or Mario Lemieux prove the more valiant leader? Who
will ultimately benefit more from the preseason trade in which
the Penguins sent Ulf Samuelsson and Luc Robitaille to New York
for Nedved and Sergei Zubov? But as the Rangers and Penguins
split the first two conference semifinal games in Pittsburgh
last weekend, Jagr, the man whose curls dangle the way the puck
does from his stick, had become the central figure of the
second-round playoff. The Rangers knew if they could control
Jagr on his flights of fancy hockey and force the jittery
Penguins defensemen to handle the puck, they would win. On the
other hand, if Jagr kept playing like a scriptwriter's hero, the
Penguins might overcome their own defensive lapses--and New York.
Although Jagr should be impossible to overlook--his 149
regular-season points represent the greatest offensive output by
a right wing in NHL history--he has often been lost in the
shadow of Lemieux's inspirational return from Hodgkin's disease.
Despite his 62 goals, Jagr somehow failed to win enough votes to
be one of the three MVP finalists. Of course the NHL could
invent other categories for Jagr, besides best-tressed. Best
one-on-one player: Jagr. There are faster forwards who might
embarrass a defenseman with their speed, but no one plays
one-on-one in traffic the way he does. Best combination of skill
and strength: Jagr again. The 6'2", 215-pound Czech is the first
man to combine the traditional European attributes of slickness,
nimble feet and goal scorer's hands with lower-body strength,
allowing him to fend off checks and protect the puck. "He's a
gorilla, strong as a horse," Penguins coach Ed Johnston says,
offering his own vision of Jagr as a crossbreed. "I don't know
anybody who's stronger on his skates."
Jagr has had impeccable one-on-one instincts since entering the
league in 1990, but until two years ago, the stickhandling was
art for art's sake. Too often, he would carry the puck
brilliantly through the defense, only to wind up stuck in the
corner with his options gone. The childlike exuberance is still
there when he carries the puck, but now there is purpose, his
puck-dance being part of the flow and not mere confection. Jagr
plays hockey instead of keep away, relying more on his
industrial-strength shot and his teammates.
This is all part of his maturation, which accelerated last
season when he led the league in scoring while Lemieux took a
sabbatical because of a herniated back muscle and his battle
against Hodgkin's. The Penguins will not be Jagr's team until
Lemieux retires, but Jagr has done fine as an understudy. "We
gave Jaromir a lot of responsibility," Johnston says. "For the
first time he understood he was one of the top players in the
league. He matured. He even drives slower."
Johnston offers anecdotal evidence, though he may be stretching
the truth. When the Penguins would land in Pittsburgh in the
early morning after a road game, Jagr used to zip past Johnston
on the highway "like a red streak," the coach says, adding a
passable Roadrunner imitation. "He doesn't go 100 miles an hour
anymore." Jagr is more circumspect. "The big difference between
America and Europe is that there's no speed limit over there,"
he says. "That's an even bigger adjustment than the lifestyle."
Certainly Jagr was driving the Rangers crazy. In the 4-3
Penguins victory in Game 1, he blew two shots past Rangers
goalie Mike Richter and inside the post and set up the winning
goal in the third period on a two-on-four. At the end of a shift
longer than the presidential campaign, Jagr carried the puck to
the red line as a Rangers forechecker receded and, instead of
dumping the puck into the zone and returning to the bench,
decided to see where this adventure might lead. Jagr plowed on;
turned Driver, a solid one-on-one defender, with an
outside-inside move at the blue line; and drew the other
defenseman to him, opening a lane for a pass that Lemieux tipped
in on the backhand.
"Three guys turned away from him on that play," says Rangers
coach Colin Campbell. "He was out there for 1:40 on that shift.
He should have his wrists slapped for that, but he winds up
creating the winning goal."
The next day Campbell seemed unsure how best to defend Jagr. As
he walked back to the hotel from the Civic Arena after practice,
Campbell was contemplating assigning a shadow, a personal escort
for Jagr all over the ice. "The problem if I put a guy on him is
that there are no guarantees we'll be able to handle him
one-on-one," Campbell said. "Maybe we can stop him from scoring,
but that won't stop him from setting someone else up. The kid
looks like he's having so much fun out there. Maybe what we have
to do is play a miserable, snot-nosed game so he doesn't have
quite so much fun."
The Rangers played Jagr straight-up in Game 2. Campbell changed
his lines and defense pairs on the fly, getting forwards Niklas
Sundstrom and Jari Kurri and defenseman Samuelsson on the ice
against Jagr's line. All Jagr had to show for an uncomfortable
afternoon was one goal and one foiled breakaway.
But the match wasn't decided by matchups. It was dominated by
Messier. He is, eternally, the pivotal Rangers player because he
is so steadfast on the road, maintaining a 1.28 points-per-game
playoff average that is virtually identical to his home career
mark. Messier doesn't mind the cramped visitors' dressing room
at the Civic Arena; he changes in a phone booth, anyway. All
Messier did in the 6-3 New York victory was help kill a
one-minute, five-on-three Penguins power play in the first
period, derail a second-period Penguins comeback by trumping a
Lemieux goal with one of his own 12 seconds later, and play
about half the game.
Messier offered his own ideas about how New York should deal
with Pittsburgh 34 seconds into the game when he leveled Zubov,
knocking the stick out of the defenseman's hands. If nothing
else, it proved that Messier was equally at home smacking both
his former Rangers teammates. In Game 1 Messier fought an
undeclared war against Nedved, drawing a penalty for slashing,
whacking the Penguin at every opportunity and manhandling him in
the six face-offs the two took against each other in the closing
minute. For Messier, who has no agenda other than the Stanley
Cup, the mugging looked suspiciously personal. "I don't know
what was going on there," Jagr said. "Maybe [Petr] owes him some
money and didn't pay it."
"That's silly," said Rangers defenseman Kevin Lowe, Messier's
longtime friend. "You know Mark. Mark would say that Petr Nedved
doesn't mean enough to worry about. This was more of a case that
here's a guy Mark's playing against, and Mark's testing him the
same way he would test any player who has the reputation of
being a little soft."
Nedved had been having a brilliant post-season, scoring six
goals in six games against the Washington Capitals, including
the quadruple-overtime winner in Game 4. That match, which
lasted 139:15, sent reporters scurrying to the record books to
discover that Mud Bruneteau scored the goal that ended what
still is the league's longest game, a sextuple-overtime affair
in 1936. Funny, Nedved's name was Mud last year in New York,
where he squeaked out just 11 goals, irked Messier with his
seeming lack of intensity and played so haltingly that Campbell
moved his locker between Messier's and Lowe's during the
playoffs in hopes that Nedved might absorb some hockey character
by osmosis. "Petr was an artist and we played a power-forward
game," Rangers general manager Neil Smith says. "You can't sit
in with the brass band when you're playing a violin."
But what a supreme leader like Messier couldn't give Nedved,
Jagr has. Maybe Nedved couldn't adapt to the warrior code of the
then defending Stanley Cup champions, but the laissez-faire
Penguins have been an ideal environment. Jagr and Ron Francis
ended up as Nedved's linemates, which helps explain his 45 goals
and 99 points. Nedved also had Jagr for a housemate early in the
season, which accounts for the ease with which a perennial
outsider fit in with the Penguins.
"Having Jaromir on the team makes it that much more comfortable
here," Nedved says. "I knew him from back home [in the former
Czechoslovakia], and now he's become one of my best friends. I'm
a Canadian citizen now, but it's nice to have someone from your
own country, somebody who shares a language. I didn't have that
with the Rangers. I think Mess tried to help me. Whether he
liked me as a player, I don't know, but I felt he tried to help.
Anyway, I'm happy here, and it's nice being around a fun guy
After cutting himself shaving following a brawl-marred Game 5
against the Capitals, a laughing Jagr paraded around the
dressing room showing off his bleeding chin, insisting he, too,
had joined the melee. "Why shouldn't he be happy?" Francis says.
"He's 24, in America, one of the best players in the game and
making a good living." The Rangers hope to keep Jagr from making
that living at their expense.