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Jagr now smiling

| Tuesday, March 6, 2001

After a road trip that resulted in nine points in three games, Jaromir Jagr was a candidate for NHL Player of the Week honors for a change, rather than a candidate to be traded.

And while New Jersey's Patrik Elias ultimately captured that award Monday, Jagr at least received another vote of confidence from his center and from his owner.

'He went through a lot of adversity early in the season. It really took a toll on him,' Mario Lemieux said. 'But like every good player ... you've seen the last three games, the way he's been playing. That's why we want to keep him here for a long time.'

And so it goes with the Penguins and Jagr, their leading scorer, their highest-paid player and easily their most controversial and most difficult personality to understand this season.

On one hand, Jagr awoke yesterday morning tied with Colorado's Joe Sakic with an NHL-leading 91 points, and as the author of a 16-game scoring streak, the longest in the league this season.

One the other, Jagr is a player who has slumped (relatively speaking) and sulked (surprisingly so) at times this season, once saying he felt like he was 'dying alive,' and insisting on another occasion that 'I'm not a good player.'

Jagr led the Penguinss with four goals and five assist in their recently completed three-game road trip to Montreal, New York (Rangers) and Washington. With Lemieux out of the lineup against the Capitals on Saturday night, Jagr followed up a four-point effort against the Rangers by figuring in on each of the Penguins' three goals against Olie Kolzig (one goal, two assists).

That's the same Jagr, by the way, who twice asked to be traded before Lemieux left the owners box and began playing again Dec. 27, and the one who said yesterday that he would understand such a transaction if that's what the organization ultimately decided was best for all involved this summer.

'I've been here for 11 years. The city was nice to me, the fans were nice to me, (the media) were nice to me,' Jagr said. 'I just don't want to be the guy ...

'If the Penguins keep me here next year, if they decide to keep me; I don't know. ... But there are going to be a lot of free agents, and it's going to be tough. I respect all the decisions the team is going to make. Whatever is best for them to do, that's what they should do.

'If they decide to trade me to be able to sign other guys, that's fine with me. I'm never going to be mad at the Penguins. I like it here. But on the other side, nobody should be upset if the Penguins decided to do something with me this summer.'

The Penguins have 21 players scheduled to enter free agency in one form or another this summer.

Jagr is scheduled to earn $21 million over the next two seasons.

Lemieux has said that Jagr won't be traded this season, and that he'll only be sent packing over the summer if he no longer wishes to remain a member of the Penguins.

There have been times this season in which that clearly appeared to be the case, but Lemieux has been able to keep them in perspective.

'He wasn't playing very well (early in the season). He wasn't scoring at crucial times. He put a lot of pressure on himself, and he had difficulty with that,' Lemieux said. 'Every great player comes out of it sooner or later. It seems like he's coming out of it at the right time.

'Overall, it's been an up-and-down season for him, a lot of frustration. I can understand that, but sooner or later you have to snap out of it and work hard and work your way out of it.'

'There's a lot of pressure on him,' Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka said. 'He has to work with it. He's still leading the league in scoring, or tied now or something like that. He's still had a great season.

'Maybe he wants to be 20 points in front of Sakic and he's not, and he's a little bit mad about that.'

And maybe, just maybe, the emotional roller coaster Jagr has been riding is about to climb once again now that his goal-scoring touch appears to be returning.

Jagr managed at least an assist in seven of his first 10 games after the All-Star break but scored goals in just two of those, prompting the 'I'm not a good player' lament following a victory over the Islanders on Feb. 25. Now, he's riding a four-goals-in-three-games hot streak and looking to Lemieux like the Jagr of old.

'He's smiling a little bit, and that's a good sign,' Lemieux said. 'Every time he's on the ice and he scores a goal and you see that smile, you know he's feeling good and he's feeling good about his game.

'We need him to smile a little more the next month or so.'

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