PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux hasn't laced up a pair of skates or stared down a goaltender on a breakaway in nearly two years. No matter, he thinks the best player in hockey still resides in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux doesn't attend Penguins' games in person -- he's embroiled in a dispute with the bankrupt franchise's owner. But he watches enough on TV to give Jaromir Jagr this endorsement: "He's the best player in the world -- by far."
The way Jagr has played during the Penguins' 10-game winning streak, at a level reached only occasionally by gifted players such as Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
After Jagr had four points in a streak-stretching 7-3 victory Monday over Washington, Capitals coach Ron Wilson said he yanked goaltender Olaf Kolzig with Pittsburgh ahead 5-1, "As an act of mercy."
"Jagr is the best player in the league," Canadiens defenseman Stephane Quintal said in admiration last week.
Jagr will say only that Lemieux was the best player he ever saw, "And there was only one Mario." He won't compare himself to Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure or Paul Kariya.
But Jagr is enjoying the crackdown on holding, clutching and grabbing, tactics Lemieux long implored the NHL to regulate because they allowed players of marginal ability to drag down the quality of play.
"I think the game has changed since last year," Jagr said. "It's more open and the stronger, better, faster guys have an advantage over the other guys. Last year, there was a lot of holding."
This year, there's no holding back Jagr as he tries to win a third NHL scoring title in five years. He has 26 points, with six games of three points or more, during a 10-game winning streak the Penguins hope to extend Wednesday night at the New York Islanders.
The only surprising aspect of the Penguins' longest streak since they won a league-record 17 in a row in 1993 is it has revealed Jagr the leader, not just Jagr the scorer.
Jagr succeeded Lemieux and Ron Francis as the Penguins' captain mostly in deference to his ability as a player, rather than as a leader of men. But he has stepped forward recently as the Penguins' most vocal leader, one capable of rallying his team even when he doesn't score.
Frustrated the Penguins trailed Buffalo 3-2 on Feb. 2, Jagr stood up on the bench and said, "We're not losing." The Penguins scored three times in the final 6:01 to win 5-3, with Jagr figuring in every goal.
Then, with the winning streak in danger of ending Saturday in Nashville, Jagr implored his teammates to remember they had won their previous two games in overtime, yelling, "Let's do it again." They did, winning 3-2.
Certainly, Jagr is not a one-man offense. Kip Miller, who had only three points with the Islanders last season, has 10 goals and 18 points in 11 games since moving up to Jagr's line. Martin Straka made the All-Star game, and Alexei Kovalev has 18 goals since joining the NHL's league-best offense 2« months ago.
But it takes only a few shifts of any game to realize that Jagr's speed, playmaking ability, scoring touch and ability to stay on his skates even when pummeled by larger defensemen makes the Penguins go.
"I think Jaromir Jagr gets better every year," Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said.
Coach Kevin Constantine agreed, saying, "You wonder how much better the kid can get."
What even his coach forgets sometimes is Jagr no longer is a kid. Jagr turned 27 Monday and is in his ninth season in the league, even if it seems like only last week he was an impressionable teenager playing alongside Lemieux.
Now, it's possible Jagr might play someday for the now-retired Lemieux, who is trying to assemble investors who would rescue the Penguins from bankruptcy and keep them in Pittsburgh.
"It would be great," Jagr said, clearly enjoying the thought that Lemieux might be his boss. "It would be all offense all the time -- just the way we like it."