Jaromir Jagr glides across the blueline and immediately engages Dallas Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher. Jagr darts his eyes, feigning a pass, then floats the puck between the huge defenseman's skates, spins around him, retrieves the puck and attacks goaltender Ron Tugnutt with an array of baffling moves.
The breathtaking rush was ultimately stunted by a brilliant save, but the brash attempt in Sunday night's loss to the Stars revealed much about Jagr, who is a very different man, and a very different hockey player, than he was a year ago. In his first season with the Washington Capitals, he labored to adjust to new teammates, coaches, playing styles and surroundings, all the while battling injury problems. Five seconds of greatness spoke to that change.
"Totally, you can see that in him again," said center Robert Lang, Jagr's close friend and teammate with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Czech national team and now the Capitals. "He's trying different things. He's confident. He's dangling the puck and going one-on-one and winning lots of battles in the corners. Just from seeing him every day I think he's a lot happier and more comfortable than he was last year."
Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion, is again confounding defensemen with his creativity, oozing confidence on each shift. Without the pressure that follows a blockbuster trade, he seems to be at peace off the ice as well, letting his naturally ebullient personality shine through. That duality defines Jagr. His play is not unencumbered unless his mind is free; the unexplainable creativity inherent in his game is not nearly as prevalent if he is grappling with daily interactions in the dressing room and concerned about fitting in.
Now, with a year in Washington behind him; with new friends like Peter Bondra stationed one stall over, and old friends and former teammates such as Lang and Kip Miller close by; with his body healthy and mind clear; with the Capitals off to a solid start; with a new coaching staff in place; Jagr seems poised for a huge season.
"When you're winning it's certainly a lot easier to get confidence," Jagr said. "But last year I was injured at practice, injured for games, and of course you have to stay healthy and last year I didn't have it. Plus, I was a new guy here last year and I didn't know many people. It takes time, and it took me a lot of months to adjust.
"This year there are some guys here that I played with before, and that always helps. If people don't know you they might take stuff differently than you really are and get the wrong impressions, and I did not want that. But I am not an actor. I'm not going to act like something I am not."
Jagr already has four goals (one-third of Washington's total) and seven points in five games -- only four players in the NHL had more goals entering play last night -- including two memorable game-winning goals in the final minutes. Last season Jagr limped through the first half and finished with 42 fewer points than he compiled in 2000-01, ending a run of four straight scoring titles.
He has done nothing but impress rookie coach Bruce Cassidy thus far, and the only problem is finding more ice time for Jagr, with Washington taking far too many penalties in games and the superstar not among the penalty-killers.
"He's creating offense every night," Cassidy said. "We're just not getting him out there enough with all of our penalties. It's an issue we've got to address."
Cassidy has frequently juggled Jagr's teammates on the first line, and he is now skating with Lang, a free-flowing playmaker, and Steve Konowalchuk, a physical winger who can clear out space. It's an arrangement Jagr relishes.
"You've got to play with the players you are very confident with," Jagr said. "When you've got more confidence to play hockey, then you don't have to just concentrate on yourself, and that's the way I feel this year. Lang is a great player. He is a real center man, an old-fashioned center man. He's strong on the puck and makes the right decisions. Those are the guys I really like to play with."
In Pittsburgh, Jagr would often tell teammates to leave him alone in the corner and just head to the net to await a pass, positive that he could take on any defender and come away with the puck.
"And nine times out of 10 he would beat the guy in the corner and make the play," Lang said. "That's what made him so good. One-on-one he's the best player in the world because he's so strong, he's so big and he has the hands. It's hard to defend a guy who has everything."
Jagr again has that commanding mind-set, and he is back to being a jokester when not on the ice. He is quick to needle a teammate, almost always producing a smile. He is not afraid to unleash a lighthearted tirade after a practice session or poke fun at himself. He is more like the uncomplicated man-child who became a world-wide sensation in Pittsburgh, and less like a stranger negotiating his way through delicate social terrain.
"He's a guy who likes to have a lot of fun and laugh and be around the guys," Bondra said. "He's probably a lot more relaxed now. He tried maybe too hard last year after he got hurt and he felt all that pressure, and of course that's understandable. This year, with Lang here, maybe that helps him to loosen up a little more. He wasn't so comfortable with everything last year, but now he is getting used to it and you see the results on the ice."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Steve Eminger, 18, may go in and out of the lineup, but General Manager George McPhee said there are no plans to send him back to his junior team. . . . There is still no communication between McPhee and the agent for unsigned restricted free agent Andrei Nikolishin. Sources said one team expressed repeated interest in Nikolishin, but no trade could be struck. . . . Cassidy had a lengthy meeting with Chris Simon after yesterday's practice to discuss Simon's run of bad penalties and recent benching.