GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Jaromir Jagr
slyly says he's tired and old, that his legs aren't fresh. He smiles when asked if he'll feel fresh for Game 1 of the New York Rangers
' quarterfinal playoffs series against the New Jersey Devils
, saying, "I don't know. Ask me before the game and I'll let you know."
He's been this evasive and somewhat affable way all season, and after a while it's easy to buy into what he's saying. It's easy to assume that perhaps the 36-year-old Czech isn't joking, that he is tired and old and ready for a new challenge after this season.
Or, just maybe, Jagr has got us all fooled.
If you know the player and his history, odds are that is the case, because behind all the joking and the self-deprecation is a hungry, experienced leader who knows exactly what he's doing.
Argue if you must, but Jagr has a plan. In time he'll know if it's working.
"I don't have to be fresh like the other guys, but the guy that is facing me is all I care about," Jagr said. "Am I better than the guy that is facing me? I don't have to be the freshest guy on the ice, but I have to be fresher than the guy that is facing me."
In Jagr's case, this is the absolute hard truth.
There are few players in the NHL that still garner as much attention as Jagr does when he's on the ice. Expect the Devils to send Colin White
, their top defenseman, over the boards every time Jagr is on the ice when the series begins Wednesday night in New Jersey. Chances are they'll match the Dainius Zubrus
-Mike Rupp-David Clarkson checking line against him at least through Games 1 and 2, when the Devils hold the last-change advantage.
This means that if Jagr is tired, odds are White and the checkers will be, as well. If Jagr, though, is in better shape than them, odds are he'll win the battle in the end. If he wins the battle, odds are the Rangers will win the series, because even with Scott Gomez
and Chris Drury
bringing new playoff blood to the Rangers, Jagr remains New York's most important skater.
If he wasn't, the opposition wouldn't expend so much energy trying to match him.
"It's like chess, a game within the game," said Jagr, who again led the Rangers in scoring, this time with 71 points. "That's what it is, because you're facing the same guy most of the time. Who is going to be better in Game 6? We don't know. It's about who is going to be in better shape. They may have to change their matchup. You don't know. It could be the other way. I could be good for a few games, but they beat me up. You never know."
Jagr does know he's ready for the playoffs, even if his jokes suggest otherwise. For evidence, look no further than his final eight games of the regular season.
He scored seven goals after scoring just 18 in the first 74 games. In three of those games he logged more than 23:30 of ice time, including 25:19 against the Islanders last Friday night and 24:12 against the Devils on Sunday.
This isn't just a coincidence.
We've all had those dog days in a hockey season, coaches included, where it's difficult to go out there and do your job. But you persevere through that and this is exactly why you do. When you get to this side of the equation it's much easier to play because you have invested that type of effort in the tough times. He has completely done that this year, and he's now seeing that reward at last for chances. His effort for me has never been in question. - Rangers head coach, Tom Renney
To his credit, Rangers coach Tom Renney sees through Jagr's eyes, too. He understands how the strategy of playing the big guy big minutes can pay big dividends in the end, especially in a Game 7 scenario.
"It has crossed my mind, and we have used him under those circumstances, but only occasionally this season because of our depth," Renney said. "He's a big, strong man. He's in great shape and completely healthy and fired up. You might want to take advantage of that."
Renney, though, doesn't believe for one second Jagr took any shifts off or practices off during the regular season.
Jagr has been knocked for his perceived lack of intensity and drive in some games. Some have suggested his heart just didn't seem into it at various times, but Renney argues the contrary, saying Jagr's hot late-season play is a result of his hard work.
"I think he's getting some chances now, some shots to the net and some are going in, but he has been working for a long time," Renney said. "We've all had those dog days in a hockey season, coaches included, where it's difficult to go out there and do your job. But you persevere through that and this is exactly why you do. When you get to this side of the equation it's much easier to play because you have invested that type of effort in the tough times. He has completely done that this year, and he's now seeing that reward at last for chances. His effort for me has never been in question."
Neither should his experience, because although Jagr may not always act the part, he has become quite cunning over the years.
"I have a pretty good picture of what I want to do," Jagr said. "I'm not going to guarantee that it's going to be like that because it could change over the games depending on how I feel, but I've done it for years and it has worked pretty well."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.