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Lighter Jagr helps Czechs reach semifinals at Worlds

by Michael Langr

PRAGUE -- Jaromir Jagr has benefited from his size throughout his career. When he turns his back to the play to shield the puck, it's very difficult for defenders to get around his big body to his long stick.

Jagr decided to give up some of that advantage during the 2014-15 NHL season. In an effort to keep pace with his young Florida Panthers linemates, the 43-year-old lost more than 20 pounds, trading size for speed.

"I'm still somewhere around 105 kilograms (230 pounds) and I used to have 115 (253)," he said. "It's hard to skate with so much weight, when other players have 80 (176). I'd be happy to see them moving with a 30-kilogram vest."

The benefits of Jagr's weight loss were obvious at the end of the NHL regular season, and they've been evident at the IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic, where Jagr has adjusted to the larger international rink and had no problem skating past much younger defensemen while leading the host country to the semifinals.

"I'm playing the way I need," Jagr said last week after the Czechs' fifth game of the tournament, a 4-0 win against Austria. "Every game is different, but I've had chances to score in each of them."

Jagr has been hampered a bit by injuries during the tournament. He didn't finish the Czechs' May 1 opener against Sweden because of a bruised finger, and on Tuesday against Switzerland in their preliminary-round finale, he left early in the first period with an undisclosed injury. But Jagr was back in the lineup Thursday and scored two goals, including the game-winner, in a 5-3 quarterfinal victory against Finland.

Despite missing parts of two games with injuries, Jagr is tied for third in the tournament with six goals and has a team-leading nine points entering the Czech Republic's semifinal game against Canada on Saturday.

After Jagr was traded to Florida from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 26, he quickly found chemistry on a line with two players whose combined age is three less than his -- 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov and 21-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau. He scored six goals and had 18 points in 20 games with the Panthers.

Jagr's smaller body probably helped.

"My old weight had its advantages as well; I was stronger at the boards. But I feel good this way," he said.

Jagr has been one of the best forwards at the World Championship, which has featured NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Some of Jagr's moves through the offensive zone in the tournament have been reminiscent of the early days of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. With his stickhandling and vision, he has created a lot of chances for himself and his teammates, including a superb no-look stretch pass to captain Jakub Voracek for a goal against Germany and a spin-o-rama to get past Austrian defenseman Daniel Mitterdorfer, though he failed to score because of a great toe save by goalie Rene Swette.

"That's how it goes. Unfortunately, the goals count, not the beauty," Jagr said. "My dad used to say: This is hockey, not figure skating. Nobody's gonna pay you for beautiful plays; you gotta score. But we're trying to get those great fans some extra bonus here."

He tied the game against Finland with a power-play goal in the second period, then scored the go-ahead goal with 4:30 remaining in regulation by coming out from behind the net and putting a shot through the small gap between kneeling goaltender Pekka Rinne's arm and his body.

Jagr's standing as the most famous Czech player of all-time has made him the most celebrated player at the 2015 World Championship. In the first few games, he did not respond to the fans chanting his name, trying to focus on adjusting to the international game and playing at his best. But he has saluted the fans from the bench as the tournament progressed, feeling relieved and putting more heat in Prague's O2 Arena.

"The atmosphere here is great, comparable only to NHL playoff hockey," Jagr said. "But I haven't been in the playoffs for a while. And here, the fans have different style of supporting with all the jumping and chanting through the entire game. It's great that people here are crazy about hockey. It's the reason why we want to do something extra for them. Even when we're leading 3-0, we are not playing just some maintenance."

The semifinal game against Canada could be the final time No. 68 plays for his home country in a World Championship game. But he'll be back in the NHL in the fall; Jagr signed a one-year contract with the Panthers on April 12, one day after the regular season ended.

During the summer, the fourth-highest scorer in League history (1,802 points) will prepare for his 22nd NHL season. If his performance from the World Championship is any indication, he still has plenty left in the tank.

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