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Penguins Jagr just grand in opener

Has goal, assist to propel Capitals to 6-1 win against Devils

Sunday, October 07, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

WASHINGTON -- With one classic move, with one kiss blown to the heavens, what had been known for months finally became official last night.

Jaromir Jagr belongs to the Washington Capitals.

"It feels good, very good," he said after netting a goal and an assist in a 6-1, season-opening blowout of the New Jersey Devils before a boisterous capacity crowd of 18,672 at the MCI Center. "I've scored a lot of goals in this league, but I was very nervous before this game. I really felt like I needed to get one."

It came at 6:44 of the second period, and it was delivered in a fashion reminiscent of so many of the 439 he scored in his 11 years with the Penguins.

With the Capitals ahead, 2-1, center Adam Oates won a faceoff in the left circle of the Devils' zone, and left winger Dainius Zubrus worked through a check to collect the puck. Zubrus' first attempt to sweep it to Jagr in front of the crease failed, but his second made it, and Jagr was one-on-one with goaltender Martin Brodeur.

In one rapid motion, Jagr caught the puck on his forehand, then turned it to his backhand -- always his favorite maneuver in close range -- to lift it high into the net.

"Zubie made a nice play, really fighting for the puck," Jagr said. "I just got a little lucky."

After the goal, he quickly spun away from the net and delighted the crowd by performing his familiar celebration, pressing two fingers to his lips and twirling them upward. The roar in the building was deafening, and it remained that way for several minutes.

"That wasn't to the fans," Jagr clarified when asked by a Washington reporter about his gesture. "That's for the guy up there."

Just 8:33 later, Jagr showed off his playmaking skills.

Moments after shooting wide on a breakaway, he grabbed a loose puck along the right boards in the New Jersey end and blindly sent it to Oates behind the goal line. Oates flipped it in front to defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who one-timed it past Brodeur.

After a sluggish first period in which Jagr seldom touched the puck, Capitals Coach Ron Wilson inserted Oates as Jagr's center and removed Andrei Nikolishin. Those two and Zubrus clicked for the rest of the night and likely will stay together.

"I know where Oates is, where he likes to be," Jagr said. "That's very important for players to have."

In addition to his two points, Jagr registered four shots, dazzled with his passes and created an abundance of space for his teammates. And he did so despite fitting in with the Capitals' defense-first ways and working through a rigid four-line rotation. He logged 19 minutes and 52 seconds of ice time, roughly five minutes less than he averaged with the Penguins last season.

Jagr also couldn't help but appreciate that his sterling debut came against the Devils, who held him without a goal during the Penguins' five-game defeat in the Eastern Conference final this past spring.

"Of course, they're a great team, and I was a little scared before the game," he said. "I didn't have a good experience against them the last time I saw them."

The Capitals long have emphasized the team over the individual, and they made it apparent through their pregame ceremonies they have no intention of changing that, even with a five-time NHL scoring champion added to the roster.

To start, the players were introduced in numerical order. That meant that immediately after Jagr, No. 68, drew a thunderous ovation, the fans had a chance to boo Oates, No. 77, who is demanding a trade. In Pittsburgh, too, players are announced in numerical order, but exceptions always have been made to ensure Jagr or Mario Lemieux draw the final cheer.

The Capitals spent the next few minutes commemorating their performance last season. The video scoreboard showed a collection of the team's highlights -- omitting any trace of its latest playoff loss to the Penguins -- and the 2000-01 Southeast Division championship banner was hoisted to the rafters.

Then, for the opening faceoff, Wilson deployed his checking unit of center Jeff Halpern, left winger Steve Konowalchuk and right winger Ulf Dahlen, leaving Jagr on the bench. By the time Jagr took his first shift, 16 seconds into the game, few in the crowd seemed to notice.

Clearly, if Jagr was going to draw attention on this night, he would have to earn it.

And he did precisely that.

"This is why we got him," Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "Over the years, we've been so used to having to hold those close leads. But he goes and gets us the big goal to make it 3-1, and we break the game open. To me, he's the element this team has been missing for a long time."

"It was just great for all of us to be out there with him," right winger Peter Bondra said. "To be around a great player like that ... well, you saw it."

Halpern, Dahlen, Bondra and defenseman Calle Johansson scored Washington's other goals. Defenseman Josef Boumedienne scored for the Devils.

Tomorrow: Jagr's adjustment to Washington still has many bumps ahead.

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