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Jagr's last stand?

| Sunday, May 4, 2008

Forgive the Washington Capitals fan who sits bewildered as he watches this Penguins-Rangers series.

Pity him as he crinkles his face and scratches his head and frequently wonders aloud, "Who's the guy wearing No. 68 for New York?"

It's certainly not the same guy who slumbered through two-and-a-half years in D.C. after signing a $77 million contract (the Capitals still were making payments on that contract this season, four years after Jagr's blessed departure).

Jagr's inspired play the past two games - especially his raging-bull reprise in Game 4 - is at once a compliment and an indictment.

A compliment to his rekindled desire and still-superlative skills.

An indictment of his attitude over parts of the past several years, when his often-joyless play would turn slothful.

Nobody had a right to expect Jagr to play like his hair was on fire for 82 games a season as he grew older. Who does that• But if you watched Game 4, you had to wonder this much: Couldn't he have reached down deep and performed that way more often during his latter years with the Penguins, his 190 games with the Capitals and parts of his time with the Rangers?

Of course he could have.

He chose not to.

At the moment, for whatever reason, the 36-year-old Jagr is positively possessed. He has figured in on seven of the Rangers' 10 goals in the series, including five of six in Games 3 and 4. If he goes wild again today, the series might well shift back to the Big Apple for Game 6.

If not, this could be Jagr's NHL curtain call. He has hinted at playing in Russia next season. I doubt he'll retire, but there is at least a chance his career could end today, in the same city where it began.

And that raises a question: What kind of send-off would he warrant from Penguins fans after the post-series handshake?

A rich mix of cheers and jeers, symbolizing the contradiction that is Jagr, seems about right. It should be like a college football game, with fans on one side cheering, followed by the other booing, then vice-versa.

Or how about if all 17,132 fans come up with a different reaction - one for each of Jagr's moods on a given day during his tenure as Penguins captain?

To boo Jagr is not necessarily to loathe him. It is possible to hold affection and anger in the same heart.

In this case, it makes perfect sense.

We're talking about a man who has spent much of his career unwittingly trying to disprove the sports maxim that one should never get too high or too low.

Jagr was always too high or too low; too elated or too morose; too carefree or too ticked off.

His temperament changed faster than Michel Therrien's line combinations.

I can see why many Penguins fans resent Jagr. He was entrusted with the captaincy of the franchise and despoiled it, asking to be traded on more than one occasion during his tumultuous final season here.

When the going got tough, Jagr asked out.

He also had two goals in his final 19 playoff games here, tortured a couple of coaches and basically failed as the anointed team leader.

Yet, I would agree with those who say Jagr's positive contributions - two Stanley Cups, five scoring titles, countless highlight-reel plays -- far outweighed the negatives over the course of his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh.

Jagr deserves to have his jersey raised to the rafters, joining Lemieux's No. 66 and the late Michel Briere's No. 21. At some point, he merits a loud and lengthy standing ovation from Penguins fans.

But if all that happens today is bunch of boos, so be it. Jagr has earned them.

Of course, if he decides to keep playing like he did three days ago, this might not be his last game in Pittsburgh.

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