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 afterward whether he was turning back the clock to the days when, as a Pittsburgh Penguin, he led the NHL in scoring five times over a seven-season stretch from 1995 through 2000-01, Jagr laughed.
"No, it was tough for me," he said, grinning. "I felt like a soldier in Iraq for the first 20 minutes. Things were coming at me so fast from every direction. It's different hockey. I've got to get used to it again."
Jagr has played the last two seasons for Omsk-Avangard in the KHL after a Hall of Fame-worthy NHL career during which he scored 646 goals and won two Stanley Cups. The return to the cozier NHL-sized rink being used for these Olympics and games full of NHL-caliber players left Jagr struggling to keep up during the first period.
In fact, after one shift-long battle along the boards with Slovak defenseman Andrej Sekera, Jagr returned to the Czech bench doubled over and clutching his ribs.
"Something happened to me on that shift -- it's not good," he said. "But it worked better for me, because I didn't skate everywhere after that. I had to conserve my energy. I hope it's going to be better."
Fact is, Jagr got much better as the game went on. By its end, he was flying.
During its middle, though, was when he took charge.
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 – Marian Gaborik of 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, Patrik 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 three-on-three rush, Marian Hossa leaned into a 30-foot slapper that cleanly beat Czech goaltender Tomas 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.
"It's tough," Halak said later, "when a shooter like that comes at you."
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.
"If they score there, it's completely different," Jagr said. "Then it's 2-1 for them and who know what happens? But that's what it is. That's just the sport.
"The difference between winners and losers – one mistake, one chance, that's what it is. The game is so tight. You could see the game before. Germany they played Sweden. You would say it was going to be automatic. It's not. Forty years ago, teams beat other teams 16-0. Not now."
As recently as five years ago, Jagr, who was then playing for the Rangers, was contending for a sixth NHL scoring title, narrowly finishing second to Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. He can't play full seasons at that level anymore. But he can still produce nights like Wednesday night.
"I mean he's a great player," said Czech goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who stood up to 35 Slovak shots – 12 in the third period, when the Czechs only launched two. "I told you that yesterday, there is no question he could be a high-impact player in the NHL still. And you don't lose those kind of things.
"He's maybe not as fast. But once you learn to ride a bike, you don't forget it. As you can see, he still very much knows how to play hockey."