VANCOUVER – Jaromir Jagr turned 38 on Tuesday. One night later, he turned back the clock, turning around a game that was getting away from his team and, in the process, getting the Czech Republic off to the Olympic start it desperately needed.
Jagr scored the tie-breaking goal and then set up the cushion goal 2:02 later -- with 2 seconds left in the second period – to lift the Czechs to a 3-1 victory over their former countrymen from Slovakia on Wednesday night in the crackling final opening game of the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament.
Feeling his way early and at times looking every bit of his 38 years – not to mention the two seasons he has been away from the NHL – the five-time League scoring champ was flying by game's end. And because he was, the Czech Republic had to be feeling better about its chances to compete with mighty Russia for supremacy in the withering Group B.
Asked the day before to assess what he had seen from Jagr on his birthday practice, Czech goaltender Tomas Vokoun -- who made 34 saves -- said he believed No. 68 still could be a star if he returned to the NHL.
"Absolutely," Vokoun said. "I don't think he would be competing with Ovechkin and Crosby. But he's way, way better than, I would say, 75 percent of NHL players. He's got skill, he's got the size. He can still skate. I think he would still be a star player."
The Slovaks gave their arch-rivals everything they had. And the unexpected appearance of Marian Gaborik in their lineup – he was declared out for at least the first two games by the team physician the day before – clearly energized them.
In fact, when Gaborik wired home a wrist shot from the inner rim of the left circle 47 seconds into the second period, Slovakia had matched a disputed redirection goal by Patrik Elias midway through the first period.
The Slovaks had the Czechs right where they wanted them – and just how they wanted them.
It was 1-1 late in the second period and frustration had begun to set in on the Czech bench.
A Slovakian superstar – Gaborik, who has 35 goals for the New York Rangers -- had not only shaken off a supposedly major injury to play, he had scored. And the Czech stars were wandering around the Canada Hockey Place ice unproductively.
Five straight Czech power plays had come and gone with nothing on the scoreboard and hardly anything on the ice to show for the time spent with man-advantages. So fed up with what he was watching was Czech coach Vladimir Ruzicka that he bypassed the likes of Jagr, Elias and Martin Havlat on the fifth power play, opting instead to send his third line onto the ice. Then, in an eye-blink, it all changed. Thanks to a post clanged by Marian Hossa and a flash of vintage brilliance by Jagr.
Drifting into the middle to take a feed from brother Marcel on a 3-on-3 rush, Marian Hossa leaned into a 30-foot slapper that cleanly beat Vokoun but rang hard off the right post.
When the play headed the other way, Jagr gave Hossa a little tug with his stick to free a puck in the neutral zone and then kept going. Linemate Roman Cervenka slid Jagr a springing pass and he was in alone. Knowing just what to do, as he had over 600 times during his brilliant NHL career, Jagr burst past a diving Andrej Sekera and slipped an in-tight shot through Jaroslav Halak's pads to break a 1-1 tie with 2:04 left in the second period.
Jagr wasn't done, though. And Ruzicka understood it was time to go with his hot hand.
So when Slovak defenseman Zdeno Chara was penalized for hooking moments later, Ruzicka sent out Jagr in place of Havlat on the first-line power play unit with Tomas Plekanec and Patrik Elias. Jagr delivered again.
Battling at the side of the net with fellow No. 68, hulking Slovak defenseman Milan Jurcina of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jagr poked a puck through Halak and into the crease. It sat there until Plekanec could poke it over the line for a potentially-crushing goal with 2 seconds left in the period.