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Madden: Lemieux's return makes Jagr better

Saturday, December 30, 2000

The best hockey player in the world finally showed up at Mellon Arena Wednesday night. He did exactly as his skill warrants: He dominated. He was involved in a goal just 33 seconds into the game. He played with passion, precision, detail and drama. His talent was evident every single time he touched the puck. In short, he was utterly amazing.

It's been a long time since Jaromir Jagr played that way.

The Lemieux kid was pretty good, too. It's hard to believe he was a healthy scratch the first 36 games of the season. As well as Mario played, he will certainly play better and produce more. His performance Wednesday was the best anyone could do after 31/2 years off, but anyone who really remembers how Super Mario plays knows he only scratched the surface against Toronto.

Lemieux has always been the model of consistency.

So has Jagr. Until this year, anyway.

Oh, Jagr made his own bed. He insisted on playing with inferior linemates, then insisted they give him the puck constantly. Any gang of six idiots could defend that. Ignore the two lesser players and maximize coverage on Jagr. Go to where the puck will wind up. Jagr's game plan actually negated his own talent. It's a credit to his raw skill and determination that he produced as much as he did.

By putting himself in such a situation, Jagr also put the weight of the world on his own shoulders. It showed. He was miserable on the ice and in the dressing room.

Now Jagr has a great linemate -- the only player in the world who can compare with Jagr talent-wise and keep him in check ego-wise.

The pressure is off. There's room to skate. It's time to have fun again. Time to dominate again.

Jagr has shaken free of the yoke of having to carry the Penguins. Which means he'll probably be able to carry the Penguins. With a little help from the big boy, of course.

Jagr is in his prime. He should be better than Lemieux. Right this second, he is. I don't expect Mario to reclaim his crown as best player in the world before, oh, 8:15 or so tomorrow night. Actually, by the time Lemieux really hits his stride, he will likely end up having an equal partnership with Jagr. As a result, the numbers for both will soar.

Jagr was 12 points off the NHL scoring lead going into last night's action. He'll win the scoring title. Write it down. It's a guarantee. Lemieux will finish in the top 10.

If Lemieux makes Jagr what Jagr should be, Mario's comeback will be all it's cracked up to be for that reason alone.

Maybe guys such as Kip Miller understand how Jagr plays, as No. 68 has been so fond of saying. But Lemieux understands how Jagr should play. There's a world of difference.

Jan Hrdina, for his part, has hit the lottery. Hrdina excelled as the linemate for Jagr and Lemieux Wednesday, collecting a goal and assist and doing all the things he needed to do, especially in the defensive zone. Hrdina played frightened hockey when he previously skated with Jagr. He made himself totally subservient to Jagr, passing him the puck all too often and not shooting nearly enough.

Playing with one demanding superstar rattled Hrdina. Playing with two won't. Now he can just make the proper play. I don't think Jagr will complain that Hrdina is giving Lemieux the puck too much.

It was nice to see Lemieux calmly instruct Hrdina Wednesday during several occasions on the bench. Mario won't make Hrdina nervous, but he won't leave him wondering what to do, either.

It's hard to assume anything after one game, but Hrdina seems to be the ideal fit on that line. He'll forecheck the offensive corners and backcheck the defensive slot, he's good on faceoffs, and he certainly has enough skill to do the right thing with the puck when it's required. Hrdina's superb work ethic and mental dedication to the game will keep him from taking his splendid situation for granted.

Hrdina also brings an element of youthful enthusiasm to that line which might be needed some nights. It wasn't needed Wednesday, though. Jagr and Lemieux were obviously enjoying themselves.

After just one game, Lemieux has established a lot about his comeback. The hands are still there. The conditioning is fine. The determination is present. His leadership is obvious. He remembers how to manufacture points in bunches. He can create space for himself and for teammates.

But, maybe most important, Mario showed that -- by both will and skill -- he still has the rare ability to make those around him a lot better.

That will make Hrdina a star. It will make Jagr a supernova.

And it could make the Penguins champions.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1250.

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