Whether a rookie or a veteran, the toughest part about having a breakout season is making a worthy encore.
Both the New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr and Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin enter their respective seasons with heightened expectations ahead of their season debuts Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
In his first full season with the Rangers, Jagr enjoyed a renaissance, tallying 54 goals and 123 points to lead New York into the playoffs for the first time since 1997. He finished second to Jonathan Cheechoo for the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league goals leader and behind Joe Thornton for the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer.
But the Rangers were left with a bitter taste to an overachieving season. A season-ending five-game losing streak cost them the Atlantic Division title, and a shoulder injury to Jagr in Game 1 contributed to New York being swept by New Jersey in the first round.
"As much as the pundits will suggest this and that about our team, what's most important is what we identify as being important night in and night out in terms of how we play, where our work habits are, our execution, and ultimately the outcome," Rangers coach Tom Renney said.
Jagr is pain-free, but not 100 percent entering this game, and acknowledges it will be tougher for the Rangers to repeat their breakthrough performance.
"It's going to be harder," Jagr said. "I don't think many teams are going to take us lightly like they did last year. But if you're going to be good in the league, you should be ready for that."
Offensively, Jagr will have some high-profile help in veteran Brendan Shanahan, who joined the Rangers via free agency after helping Detroit win three Stanley Cup titles. Shanahan and Jagr are the two leading active all-time scorers in the league with 598 and 591 goals, respectively, and both are on the verge of becoming the 15th and 16th players to join the 600-goal club.
Renney is going to open the season with Jagr and Shanahan as linemates, and the 37-year-old Shanahan isn't worried about Jagr having any rust from playing just one preseason game.
"Unfortunately we didn't have all of camp to prepare," Shanahan said Wednesday after the team's final preseason practice. "When you get some of these elite players, they're unpredictable. They kind of do things differently and that's what makes them great."
While Jagr - who turns 35 in February - is in the twilight of a stellar career, Ovechkin appears on his way to one of equal success. The 21-year-old beat out Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby as the league's top rookie last season, winning the Calder Trophy after totaling 52 goals and 106 points while creating an air of excitement in the nation's capital.
And Ovechkin has made it clear he will not rest on his laurels in his second season.
"I'll try to do things like I did last year, play like I played last year - hard. Hit. Score goals. Pass. And be a good teammate," Ovechkin said. "I don't think about whether it will be tougher or easier."
The Capitals turned over almost half their roster after finishing a distant last in the Southeast Division with 70 points, a total better than only three teams in the NHL.
One of the areas the Capitals hope the new players can contribute improvements is on special teams. Defenseman Brian Pothier came from Ottawa via free agency and is expected to help the power-play unit. Former Capital Richard Zednik returns to try to take some of the offensive burden off Ovechkin, and rugged left wing Donald Brashear likely will offer protection to the Capitals' franchise player.
"We're really happy with what we did on paper," general manager George McPhee said.
While Ovechkin is the first line of offense, veteran goaltender Olaf Kolzig returns to be the last line of defense. Kolzig signed a two-year extension in the offseason to return to the only team he's played for.
"I spent a majority of my life - not just my career - but a majority of my life in this organization," the 36-year-old Kolzig said. "And as the year went on and on, I realized we had a chemistry I hadn't seen since we reached the (1998 Stanley Cup) finals."
Jagr has 28 goals and 73 points in 58 lifetime games versus the Capitals, but has never recorded a hat trick against them. Ovechkin had two goals and two assists in four games against the Rangers as the teams split four games last season.