Originally created 05/07/99

Jagr leads underdog Penguins into second round



PITTSBURGH -- Fun-loving. Charismatic. Immature. Gifted. Emotional.

Many words have been used to describe Jaromir Jagr, hockey's most creative scorer and recognizable face now that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are retired.

Here's a word never used until now: Courageous.

That changed Sunday, when the badly injured Jagr dragged himself off a trainer's table and onto the ice for a game he wasn't supposed to play, indelibly etching an unforgettable image of fearlessness.

Remember Willis Reed limping onto the court to help win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals for the New York Knicks? Many hockey fans will relive Jagr's performance in pain with the same mix of wonderment and respect.

"It was unbelievable what he did," said Pittsburgh teammate Martin Straka, invoking another adjective as synonymous with Jagr as his first name.

Barely able to skate because of a groin injury that sidelined him for four games, Jagr scored the tying goal late in the third period and the game-winner in overtime against top-seeded New Jersey. By doing so, he saved the Penguins not only from elimination, but possible extinction as the franchise's future is played out to an uncertain fate in bankruptcy court.

Jagr was almost as good in Game 7, drawing so much attention from the snare drum-tight Devils that it changed the tempo of the game. He set up the final two goals as the last-seeded Penguins upset the top-seeded Devils, finishing off the greatest upset in franchise history.

Now, with a second-round series against Toronto set to begin Friday, what possibly could be left for Jagr to do?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

"I went into it to win the Stanley Cup. I'm not going for anything else," said Jagr, who is not close to 100 percent but still expects to play. "I know that sounds very confident, but that is the way I am. I think we have the chance to beat anybody."

Preposterous? So was beating the Devils.

Gretzky passed the torch, and the title of "hockey's greatest player," to Jagr during teary-eyed ceremonies last month, spoiled only a little when Jagr sent Gretzky out a loser by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.

So far, Jagr -- once derided as being too self-centered, ingenuous and childlike to be the leader of men, much less of an entire sport -- has been a fitting replacement for hockey's one irreplaceable player.

"The greatest player leaves the game and the next greatest player scores in overtime, just to announce who the next guy is," Penguins coach Kevin Constantine said.

Constantine got his share of grief for overseeing Jagr's appointment last fall as the Penguins' captain. Jagr always was more of a follower of former captains Lemieux and Ron Francis than a leader, and his penchant for speaking his mind -- especially in disagreement with his coach -- is not a quality sought in a captain.

"Jaromir not only is the best player on this team, he is the best player in the world," Constantine said. "He needs to be the captain of this team."

Constantine's faith in Jagr as a leader was justified by the Jersey series. Jagr's valorous effort likely would be the talk of the sports world if the NHL had the high national profile of the NBA.

"I could not watch," Jagr said. "I had to play."

Clearly, Jagr no longer is the impressionable 18-year-old who was fascinated by fast cars and fast skating when he came into the league in 1990.

He is 27, more worldly and adult. He doesn't frequent night clubs or casinos as much as before. He talks privately of a personal spiritual reawakening that took place back in his native Czech Republic last summer, though he will not expound on it.

Even more remarkably, Jagr's play has come against the backdrop of the Penguins' uncertain fate as the NHL presses for a resolution of bankruptcy proceedings. It is possible the Penguins will know definitely they are headed for another city even before the playoffs are over.

Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh. Jagr is trying to do it again, by taking the Penguins so deep into the playoffs that it rallies civic and business leaders to help preserve them.

"I don't think my goal is going to save the team in Pittsburgh. It has nothing to do with that, but I think the city and everybody should support Mario," Jagr said. "We're just trying to win the Cup."