PITTSBURGH — He is nearly 40 now, and even he would admit that he is far past his prime; a level of brilliance matched by only a select few since his decline began. The legs don't quite churn up ice like they once did. The passes aren't all tape-to-tape specials. Not every shot is a top-shelf laser beam.
Say this about Jaromir Jagr: One asset he never lost is his showman's flair, the accomplished actor's penchant for the dramatic.
Give Jagr a special moment, a spotlight he can call his own, a reason to be far better than just good, and he is capable of turning back the clock and being – as he once was – the best player in hockey, if only for a precious few moments.
His Flyers' 4-2 victory over the Penguins at Consol Energy Center on Thursday night was Jagr's 18th game in Pittsburgh in a visiting jersey, but history might prove this meeting the most memorable.
After all, this was his first game back since shunning the Penguins in free agency and signing with their biggest rivals, simultaneously deflating Pens diehards rummaging through storage bins for those long-forgotten No. 68 jerseys. Ever since the spurning heard ‘round Pennsylvania, Pittsburghers have been circling Dec. 29 on their calendars as the Jagr comeback game they simply couldn't miss.
Of course, they might not have expected him – at this age, at this stage of a career that began when he was an 18-year-old prodigy with the Penguins way back in 1990 – to come back like this. To quiet the raucous boos to mere whispers by the third period, and, in some part, to regain the begrudging respect of once-adoring fans who have lately been obliged to despise.
They simply couldn't have expected him to be this good.
"The fans shouldn't worry about some 40-year-old guy," Jagr said.
The fans, no, but perhaps the Penguins should have.
Jagr was the best player on the ice for much of the Flyers' fourth consecutive victory in Pittsburgh, and his goal that gave them the lead for good at 2-1 with 6:03 gone in the second was textbook Jagr.
In stride, Jagr collected NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux's drop pass in traffic and artfully threaded a perfectly placed backhander through two Penguins defenders and into the net for his 12th goal of the season. Immediately, he skated toward the glass and gave his trademark salute to a Penguins fan wearing a Kris Letang jersey.
The goal was vintage Jagr. So was the celebration.
"I have to enjoy every goal," Jagr said. "I don't know when it will be my last one."
This one was the 658th of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, nearly two-thirds (439) of which were scored in Penguins' black and gold. This was his ninth in 18 games in an opposing jersey in Pittsburgh, where it once seemed that every hockey fan within a 100-mile radius of the Steel City owned both a Mario Lemieux No. 66 and a Jaromir Jagr No. 68 jersey.
Considering all of that, this was certainly a little bit special, wasn't it?
"I don't know how to describe it. It feels special because we didn't play very well lately the last five games (when Philadelphia lost four times)," Jagr said. "We won seven (straight) games and then we lost 6-0 at home to Boston and since then I don't think we've played our game. We didn't play very well. It was a big step forward for us and every point is important. This (Pittsburgh) is a very good club, especially at home, I think this is going to give us confidence."
And what a night for comebacks. Former Penguins Stanley Cup winner Maxime Talbot, playing in Pittsburgh for the first time as an opponent, finished it off with an empty-net goal in the final 30 seconds.
Talbot isn't quite viewed by Penguins fans as the turncoat that Jagr is – he received a standing ovation following a scoreboard video tribute – but his goal added another dash of emotion to an already memorable game.
"It's not me and Jags -- tonight was the Flyers and the Penguins and we got two points," Talbot said.
It wasn't quite that simple.
For Jagr, it provided another picture postcard for the scrapbook, a hole in the space-time continuum in which he was suddenly 24 again. Even if, Jagr insists, he did act his age – he will be 40 on Feb. 15 – failing to convert a half dozen other good scoring opportunities during a game in which he was credited with two shots, had two blocked and missed on five others.
"I had so many chances, I probably had the most chances of any game I played this season," Jagr said. "I could have easily scored five goals if I would be a good player. Fifteen years ago I would have scored five. Not anymore. That's the difference between Jagr now and Jagr 15 years ago."
The difference didn't seem that great at the other end of the ice, where Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was making 24 saves during his fourth consecutive victory in Consol Energy Center over the last two seasons. The Penguins have yet to beat their biggest rivals in their nearly new building, largely because of Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky wasn't even 2 when the Penguins drafted Jagr fifth overall in the 1990 Entry Draft. But in less than half a season as Jagr's teammate, he has gained considerable appreciation for the talent Jagr possesses, the gifts he can flash, the electric jolts of momentum he can provide.
"Of course, I smiled and was very happy for him," Bobrovsky said. "It was a huge goal for us."
And, too, for Jagr, who certainly does know how to come home again. With the video cameras for HBO's 24/7 rolling, Jagr made this game all about No. 68.