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Jagr's stay in Pittsburgh goes overtime

Friday, May 11, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Seventh games of Stanley Cup playoff series remain the most exciting of athletic contests. The sudden-death nature of these games lift them far above the ordinary. When one of these seventh games goes to overtime, it takes on an even more dramatic tone. A victory can be the ultimate high, defeat the absolute downer.

And so it was with the Penguins last night, 3-2 winners in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres in the seventh game of their second-round series. Written off as finished after losing three in a row to fall behind in games, 3-2, the Penguins rallied for overtime wins in the final two games to advance to the Eastern Conference final.

They begin a best-of-seven series with the New Jersey Devils tomorrow.

The win against Buffalo, on a goal by Darius Kasparaitis, does more than extend the Penguins' season, does more than put them in position to advance to the Stanley Cup championship and give them a chance, perhaps, to bring home a third Cup.

It also gives Jaromir Jagr a chance to continue his Penguins career.

When he took the ice last night, Jagr was well aware it could be the final time he would wear a Penguins uniform. He knows there's a strong likelihood he won't be back next season.

There's nothing official about Jagr's departure, but the speculation makes too much sense to ignore.

Jagr has two years and $20.7 million remaining on his contract. The Penguins have a choice. They can retain Jagr and lose several of their core players because they can't afford to keep them. Or they can trade Jagr, which will free up the money to keep the other players, and, at the same time, add the kind of quality talent that only one of the best players in the world can bring in a trade.

It's impossible to replace 439 goals, 640 assists and the kind of presence on the ice that Jagr brings. But for a franchise intimate with bankruptcy, fiscal prudence is a necessary path, and fiscal prudence states that one player can't take home 30 percent of the payroll.

His brilliance will burn deep in our memory long after he's gone. Playing as he did for so long in the shadow of Mario Lemieux did not diminish his excellence. Five scoring championships, with more to come, speak for themselves. Like Lemieux, he has the ability to elevate his play in the postseason,

Perhaps his finest moment came two years ago in a Stanley Cup series against the New Jersey Devils. The Penguins trailed the Devils, 3-2, in games. He wasn't supposed to play in Game 6 because of an injury but dressed so that he might take a shift on power plays. Soon, he was playing a regular shift. He tied the score with two minutes remaining and won it in overtime. The Penguins then went to New Jersey and won the series against the top-seeded Devils.

He didn't have the capability of doing that last night.

He was hurting from the shoulder injury that kept him out of two games in this series and was nowhere near his best. It showed in his play. He didn't get a shot in the first 60 minutes. He added an assist in the third period, but this was not the Jagr we know.

"The power is not there," he said. "I can't do anything using my arm. The stickhandling is not there. The timing ... I'm losing the puck in situations I never lose it. My mind is quicker than my hands right now."

Jagr has steadfastly refused to talk about his possible departure. But he acknowledged this year has not been a pleasant one for him.

"It's been up and down," he said. "It's tough to describe. I don't know if it was a happy season. Probably not. No, it wasn't.

"I think people are expecting too much from me. They want me to be better or at least on the same level all the time. Once you don't play on the same level they expect you to play, they're all over you. They start questioning you. Once that happens, you start questioning yourself. Mentally, that's not going to help you.

"Sure, you want to get better and better each year. But sometimes it doesn't work that way. Even if you want, it doesn't happen. If the media wants to find something bad on you, they're going to find it. Then you start questioning yourself again."

If he is traded, Jagr will cherish his Pittsburgh days.

"Of course, they'll be great. Lot of great guys, we won two Stanley Cups, we had a lot of success, we had a lot of fun. I don't think it will be as much fun somewhere else. But every story has to end one day."

For Jagr, his Penguins' story goes on for another day.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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