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Penguins Jagr expects to play, but says Lemieux's criticisms hurt, too

Wednesday, May 02, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Yeah, the bum shoulder that forced Jaromir Jagr to sit out the Penguins' past two games still hurts.

Those stern words Mario Lemieux sent his way a week ago still seem to sting a bit, too.

And the bruises caused by criticism Jagr has absorbed from some segments of the press and public haven't healed either.

But it appears that none of those wounds, physical or psychological, will keep him out of Game 4 in the Penguins' second-round playoff series with Buffalo at 7:08 tonight at Mellon Arena.

 
 
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Jagr skated, stickhandled and shot his way through 20 minutes' worth of drills during an optional workout yesterday, then pronounced that "I think I'm going to play" tonight.

After he has some pain-killer injected into his shoulder, anyway.

"If I numb it before the game, I don't think it should give me a problem," Jagr said.

Jagr, it should be noted, was adamant that pain is not what persuaded him to sit out Games 2 and 3 of the Penguins-Sabres series. The key factor, he said, was his belief that his injury would make him a liability, not an asset.

"I could have played, but it would have hurt the team," he said. "I could skate up and down, not touching the puck. You have to explain to me how that kind of playing would help my teammates or the team. It wouldn't help at all."

Later, Jagr was asked if his primary concern was for the success of his team or his personal well-being.

"In that kind of situation, you don't think about yourself," he said. "You don't think about health. Health is secondary. The No. 1 thing is to win the hockey game."

The way his teammates see it, the Penguins' chances of winning Game 4 should be significantly enhanced with Jagr in the lineup. Not only because he has won the past four NHL scoring championships, but also because of the impact he has on opponents, even before the game begins.

"He's a guy who, when he's on the ice, the other team has to worry about [him] every single time," left winger Kevin Stevens said. "They have to adjust their game plan to him.

"When he's not in there, they count on one guy [Lemieux], basically. When he's in there, they have to try to stop two."

Lemieux and Jagr are a tandem with few, if any, equals in the NHL and have been for much of their time together.

Their relationship hit a shoal a week ago when, during a conference call with NHL writers, Lemieux offered an unflattering assessment of Jagr's playoff performance and said he would have to elevate his play if the Penguins were to contend for a championship.

Jagr said he has not discussed those remarks with Lemieux, but it was obvious they made an impression on him.

"I don't think he should say that kind of stuff [publicly]," Jagr said. "He should tell me that. It would made it easier, I think, for the team. But he decided to say it in public, and I respect that."

How much, if any, damage has been done to Jagr's relationship with Lemieux -- Jagr said there is "no problem at all" -- is hard to gauge. The prevailing sentiment in hockey circles is that, within a few months, that issue will be moot, because Jagr will have been traded so the Penguins can keep their payroll manageable.

Jagr has made it abundantly clear that he expects to be working elsewhere next season. Nonetheless, he regards all the speculation and discussion about his future as a needless distraction that can only impede the Penguins' run at a Stanley Cup.

"All the stuff, it's not helping the team." he said. "People have to understand that this is a business, and I understand that it can happen to anybody -- anybody can get traded -- but on the other side, even if that happens, I want to leave like a champion. I don't want to leave this city like a loser."

Jagr certainly didn't have the look of one yesterday. The best indication of how he was feeling probably came not during practice, but after it. That's when Jagr faced waves of reporters, punctuating many of his responses with a smile and seeming to genuinely enjoy the back-and-forth banter.

Observers who know Jagr -- who realize how much he enjoys playing and how much it troubles him to be out of the lineup -- didn't question that he had a significant injury, even when team officials were trying to conceal the precise nature of his problem.

More than a few sharp barbs have been sent his way during the past week, however, and Jagr knows it has been suggested that his injury was not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. And that perhaps he was not injured at all, but simply pouting.

"Of course, it's disappointing for me, but those people are not here," Jagr said. "They don't know what's happening here. I'm not that stupid, to fake something.

"I'm not that stupid to let doctors put needles in my shoulder [without good reason]. People have to understand that. If I was faking it, for sure I wouldn't let any doctors put a needle in my shoulder.

"I'm a professional hockey player, and I have to deal with that. But sometimes when they say stuff that's not fair, not true, it hurts people. I have feelings, also, like everybody else."

It's not Jagr's feelings that Buffalo will be trying to hurt this evening.

And even though equipment manager Steve Latin is expected to fashion some extra form of protection for Jagr's bad shoulder, the Penguins could put him in full body armor and Buffalo still would stalk him.

There's no indication that the Sabres know which of Jagr's shoulders is injured -- the Penguins have succeeded in keeping that detail secret -- but that probably just means they'll put a bull's-eye on both.

"Of course, they're going to try to do it," Jagr said. "That's [understandable]. That's why we were trying to say [the injury] was a charley horse."

Jagr said several times yesterday that "I'm not superhuman, or Superman" and rarely has his mortality been more evident that during the past week.

In that time, he has endured a painful injury, a public upbraid from a teammate he once idolized and a widely reported exchange of opinions with Coach Ivan Hlinka outside the Penguins' locker room in Buffalo.

"Whatever happens, it can't get any worse," Jagr said. "I think we've hit the bottom. From now on, you can only go up."

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