With the media assembled around his locker stall before he arrived, Jaromir Jagr didn’t waste any time earlier this week waiting for the first question. He’s been around the NHL long enough to know a good story, especially when he’s the subject. Jagr sat down and spoke first, providing the answer.
“Yes,” he told reporters at the Bruins’ practice facility, “I remember the last time Pittsburgh and Boston played.”
Jagr was playing for the Penguins back in 1992, when they beat the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final en route to their second straight Stanley Cup. Jagr had 11 goals and 24 points in 21 playoff games that year while playing alongside Mario Lemieux. Not bad for a 20-year-old with the worst mullet in NHL history.
The Penguins swept the Bruins in that series, which bounced between the Igloo in Pittsburgh and the Garden in Boston. The two old barns have since been retired along with every player on both teams other than Jagr, who continues chugging along at age 41. He has not won a title since that season.
“It was pretty nasty,” Jagr said. “But I remember that’s the way you have to play to be able to beat Boston. They were pretty tough, especially at home. I don’t know why but it was the smallest rink in the NHL back then, and they knew how to play in a small rink.”
Jagr now returns to Pittsburgh, where it all began, with a Bruins team that is playing much the same way against the Penguins team that is still relying on its skill. He was traded to Washington for financial reasons in 2001, leaving Pittsburgh as the second-best player in franchise history behind No. 66. Now, he’s third.
Penguins fans are expected to boo Jagr during the conference finals partly because he signed with Philadelphia rather than Pittsburgh two years ago and partly because, well, he’s Jagr. Opposing fans have been jeering him for two decades, which speaks to just how long he has been a dominant player.
He no longer has the same wheels and has been largely ineffective in the postseason. He has only one goal and 11 points in his past 23 playoff games with the Flyers and Bruins. He hasn’t scored in 12 postseason games this year. But he has 78 goals and 193 points in 192 career playoff games and a place waiting for him in the Hall of Fame.
“Right now, I’m suffering, but maybe something great will happen a little later,” he said. “That’s the way you’ve got to look at it, and that’s the way I’m looking at it. I’d rather not score and still be playing than scoring and being home on vacation right now.”
The conference finals are loaded with great storylines, and none of them include Sidney Crosby. Wait, that’s not entirely true. Crosby is always a story. He’s the best player in the NHL. He led the Penguins to the top of the conference even though he missed the final 12 games with a broken jaw. He has been terrific in the postseason.
Los Angeles is back in the conference finals for the second straight season after eliminating San Jose in seven games. The Kings are playing like Cup champions again, mainly because Jonathan Quick is near the top of his game. They play a tired Blackhawks team that was pushed to seven games, plus overtime, by Detroit.
The final four teams are the last four Stanley Cup champions, so none have a distinct advantage when it comes to experience and playing under pressure.
It’s funny how things work out.
Jagr started the season in Dallas and was traded to Boston after the Bruins had Jarome Iginla stolen from them before the trade deadline. Iginla practically had his bags unpacked in Boston in a trade that literally changed overnight. It was the closest thing to a Dewey-Beats-Truman moment since Truman beat Dewey.
The Bruins, irate at the time, have made peace with the deal not getting completed because it allowed them to keep defenseman Matt Bartkowski. He and fellow rookie defensemen Torey Krug (four goals) and Dougie Hamilton held the blue line together while the Bruins battled through injuries in the second round.
Iginla has played well for the Penguins, by the way. He has four goals and 12 points in 11 postseason games. He gives the Pens another leader and aggressive scorer who can help the power play. Pittsburgh has six players averaging a point-per-game or better through the first two rounds.
Here’s a closer look at the conference finals:
Pittsburgh (1) vs. Boston (4)
Penguins update: Their offense cranked out 3.38 goals per game in the first round before they dismantled the Senators in the second. Pittsburgh is now averaging 4.27 goals per contest. Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang are tied for the scoring lead with 16 points apiece, one more than Crosby. The Penguins are winning with good special teams, too. They have the best power play and third-best penalty kill in the postseason. Shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik (plus-6) has been near flawless. Tomas Vokoun has refused to give up the net after taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury. He has won six of eight games with a 1.85 GAA and .941 save percentage.
Bruins update: Quick, name the leading scorer in the playoffs? It’s center David Krejci, who had five goals and 17 points in 12 playoff games. He’ll have bruiser Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton (12 points, plus-14) with him on the top line. Krejci and Horton are the only Bruins with more goals than Krug, who has played only five playoff games. Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille provided a big scoring boost against the Rangers and have combined for five goals and 10 points in the playoffs. They must get more from Tyler Seguin, who has a goal and four points in two rounds, and Jagr, who has no goals and four assists. Tuukka Rask could outplay Vokoun and still lose the series.
Outlook: The safe choice would be picking the black and gold. Boston hasn’t had any lapses yet, but its shortage at the blue line is bound to catch up. Penguins in six.
Chicago (1) vs. Los Angeles (5)
Blackhawks update: The ’Hawks won three straight, including beating the Red Wings in overtime of Game Seven. The Presidents’ Trophy winners have not played to full capacity in the playoffs. Captain Jonathan Toews played better in the fifth and six games against Detroit but was practically invisible in Game Seven. He has just one goal in the playoffs. Patrick Kane has only two goals, but his nine points are third on the team behind Patrick Sharp (11) and Marian Hossa (11). Bottom-six forwards Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Michael Frolik have combined for 11 goals. Chicago must get more production from its stars. Can Corey Crawford maintain his 1.70 GAA and .938 SP?
Kings update: L.A. has been kings at home, paupers on the road all season. The Kings are 7-0 in Staples Center but 1-5 elsewhere in the postseason. Their problem has been scoring. Los Angeles has scored only 26 goals in its 13 playoff games. Jonathan Quick has overcome the added pressure with a 1.50 GAA and .948 SP. He leads both categories among playoff goalies who have appeared in more than two games. They’ve missed leader Jarret Stoll, who has been sidelined with a concussion thanks to Raffi Torres. He could return at some point in the series. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have played well. They need more offense from Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
Outlook: The Kings picked up their intensity in the second round while the Blackhawks had problems maintaining theirs. Los Angeles in six games.