"Great players make mistakes, too," said New Jersey Devils center John Madden, who had just completed a hat trick last night at MCI Center -- with his first goal coming after a turnover by Jaromir Jagr.

Nobody's perfect. It just seemed that Jagr was, after he had amassed 12 goals and 12 assists in 12 games to lead the Capitals to the promise of a promised land.

There he was again last night, slicing through an outstanding Devils defense and putting the puck hard on the net. Jagr has been attracting so much attention lately that, typically, Michael Nylander, was left free on open ice as he trailed the second-period play.

When the well-covered Jagr's shot caromed off goaltender Martin Brodeur, Nylander was there with no defenders around for an easy goal against the best defense in the NHL.

But the Devils also are the league's hottest team and they promptly showed why. They gave up few scoring opportunities and rallied to win, 4-1, for their 12th victory in 14 games. The go-ahead goal, Madden's first, came after an errant pass by Jagr, a mistake that a team like the Devils might be expected to convert. The puck appeared to slip off his stick, as he attempted a backhanded pass. At that instant, we knew what he later confirmed: "I'm not Superman. I made a mistake."

Losing to the Devils was no disgrace, not the way they have been playing. They are a genuine Stanley Cup contender. And only a team of that caliber would be apt to hold Jagr to a single assist the way he has been playing.

On Tuesday night, the Caps played one of their most important games of the season, at Tampa Bay. The Lightning was lurking three points behind in the division. Jagr did what he customarily did as a Pittsburgh Penguin, but did not do often last season, his first with the Caps -- he showed his team the way.

Jagr scored the game's first three goals, effectively demoralizing the Lightning. It's how he performed for a dozen games, not including the NHL All-Star Game in which he assisted three times.

"I guess we expected that," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said before last night's setback. "But I thought he was playing great the first 15 games of the season. He just wasn't getting goals. He wasn't being rewarded."

He has been lately. Jagr has been the Jagr the Capitals thought they were getting when they dealt for him before last season. But last season, he began slowly because of an injury. The Caps missed the playoffs, coach Ron Wilson lost his job and the roster was made over. Half of this season's players are newcomers, while Jagr has become familiar in the Capitals uniform -- and, at last, the force he was suspected to be.

He's been fire on ice -- and now has 25 points in 13 games since Jan. 11 against Florida, when he had three goals and four assists. He has soared close to the top of the NHL in points and goals. And his third goal against Tampa Bay made him the 33rd player in league history to score 500 goals.

"I'm more comfortable with the team because right now I'm playing with the players I like to play with," Jagr said. "I'm playing with Kip Miller. I've played with him a long time [in Pittsburgh] and you don't have to explain to him the way I play. That's probably the biggest key. Plus, always in the second half [of the season], I play better than the first half."

Jagr wants more ice time, too.

"In Pittsburgh I was playing about 30 minutes," he said. "The more you're in the game, the more you can help the team. But Coach has a different opinion. Even [Tuesday] I had only 18 minutes. That's not much for me. I can play 25 minutes. The one thing I worry about is, we make the playoffs and all of a sudden the coaches will want me to play 25 minutes. I don't think I'm going to be able to. You cannot just jump from 18 to 25. It's impossible."

Cassidy, the young rookie coach, doesn't exactly have a different opinion. He is giving Jagr what he wants -- to an extent. Cassidy said he intends to increase Jagr's ice time. "Twenty-five minutes is reasonable," the coach said, "but I can't see giving him 28 so he can get the average to 25."

Cassidy will double-shift Jagr sometimes. But the coach is not going to change anything drastically. Cassidy has done well after a get-acquainted period.

"There was all this talk when I started coaching here that, you have to get along with Jagr," Cassidy said. "I just want to see him happy and helping the team win. Obviously I don't like it when he says in the media, 'I'm not getting enough minutes.' But at the same time, he's earned it. He's been around a long time. He's a guy who voices his opinion. You just deal with that."

Cassidy has been dealing well with Jagr, and the rest of the team, in the opinion of veteran New Jersey coach Pat Burns.

"The Capitals certainly are playing far better than they did early in the season," Burns said. "Cassidy has done a good job getting those guys to understand what they have to do. They've really surged way up. They just ran into a confident team."

Unlike the Lightning, the Devils did not fold after Jagr's first point. Points are hard to come by against the likes of Madden, Scott Stevens and a defense that rarely costs its team a game. Madden said the Devils' plan was to "make him beat two of us instead of one on one."

It worked.

Jagr will get another chance against them, March 1 in New Jersey.

Capitals' Jaromir Jagr: "I'm more comfortable with the team because right now I'm playing with the players I like to play with."