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Smaller, faster Jagr producing for Czechs at Worlds

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers

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 this past NHL season. In an effort to keep pace with his young Florida Panthers linemates, he lost more than 20 pounds to get faster.

"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 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 playing for the host country.

"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 at Worlds. 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. Jagr didn't return to the game because of what appeared to be a groin or thigh issue, but the Czechs (4-1-1-1, 15 points; third place in Group A), who had no comment on the injury, hope to have him back for a quarterfinal game against Finland on Thursday.

After Jagr was traded to Florida from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 26, the 43-year-old forward 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 too.

"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.

Despite his age and the fact that he is not playing on the Czech Republic's top line for the first time since the early 90s, Jagr scored four goals in seven games and kept on shifting his own record as the oldest player ever to score at Worlds.

Some of Jagr's runs 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, after which 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."

Jagr's standing as the most famous Czech hockey player of all-time have made him the most celebrated player at the 2015 World Championship. In the first few games, he did not respond to the crowd 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 in recent games, 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 quarterfinal game against Finland on Thursday could be the final time No. 68 plays for the Czechs in a World Championship game. But that's not the case with the NHL; Jagr signed a one-year contract with the Panthers on April 12, one day after the last day of the regular season.

During the summer, the fourth best scorer in the League's history (1,802 points) will prepare for his 22nd NHL season. If he can bring his performance from the World Championship to North America, he'll still have a lot to show.

Author: Michael Langr | Correspondent

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