Reformed Jagr hopes he wont let fans down

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Reformed Jagr hopes he wont let fans down

He seems to smile more and frown less.

He likes to laugh and tell jokes.

He realizes hes not the center of attention anymore.

Things are very different these days for Jaromir Jagr, who will turn 40 when the worst of winter is upon us in February.

Once upon a time, he was still a kid living the high-life in Pittsburgh where his Penguins had won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

He boldly told Sports Illustrated after that second Cup in 1992 he was ready to retire and didnt need any more championship rings.

I just need money and beaches and girls, Jagr proclaimed.

Reminded of those words one September afternoon after a Flyers practice, Jagr grinned and laughed heartily.

I was dumb, he said. Maybe I still am. I was 20 years old. I dont know what happened.

This isnt the second (Washington) or even third (Rangers) coming of Jagr. This is the mature coming of Jagr, who turned down more money to remain in Russia just to return to the NHL.

He signed a one-year deal for 3.3 million. Hes among a slew of personnel changes the Flyers hope can make up for the 78 goals they lost by trading Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, not to mention not re-signing Ville Leino.

So whats important now? Jagr takes a deep breath and pauses several seconds.

Hockey is a big part of my life, he says, almost pleading his case. Probably more than half. I love it. Nothing has changed. Later in life, you look at things differently. Im almost 40 years old. Theres a lot of ups and downs in your life.

You just want to be happy every day. I try to. Sometimes, it doesnt always go that way, but you look the positive way. Whatever happens is the best that could happen to you. Thats the way I look at it.

Even if its not good, its the best that can happen to you because you can always learn from the bad things. Its tougher, but that is how you learn the most when something goes wrong. Its pretty tough to learn when everything goes right.

Jaromir Jagr has grown. Hes settled down a girlfriend of six years.

Now heres the intriguing part. Jagr still plays the game the same way. Sure, the long curly locks are gone. But not the moves. Not the hands. Not the skill to find people with deft, blind passes that only Jagr can make.

That part has stood the test of time.

He threw me a saucer pass in Detroit and I ended up scoring on it and it was just like, Geez, not many people can make those passes, Scott Hartnell said. You kind of think he's been out of the league a few years, maybe he's lost a step or his skill, but obviously he was playing in a good league over in Russia.

Its still there.

And yet, Jagr worries. Only one thing scares this man, who is going to break a half-dozen scoring records this season, including gathering his 1,600th point.

What scares Jagr is something he never gave a second thought about as a younger player: himself.

He worries he wont live up to the hype this time around. That he might disappoint people.

He cautioned us fans shouldnt get their expectations up just because he single-handedly dragged the Flyers gosh-awful power play out of the garbage heap in preseason, not to mention led the team with four goals.

I dont want to disappoint the guys who signed me, Jagr said with a serious look on his face. That's why I want to do good. I want to do good to help those guys, help the team that signed me and gave me a chance.

If its just about myself, I had so many bad games and bad seasons. This wont be the first time. I just dont want to disappoint those guys who believe in me. That is what I am nervous about.

Theres a lot of doubters as to why Philly signed me. Why they do it and sign a 40-year old guy? I dont want other guys who took the risk to be blamed.

Obviously, there is no i in the word team these days for Jagr.

When you had him in Washington and New York, it was his team, Danny Briere said. They built a team around Jaromir. This year, he comes back after leaving the NHL for three years.

Hes not coming back here to try and run a team himself. Hes coming back because he believes in our team.

At his age, the goal is to win. Hes not coming here to be on a bad team and rack up points. I think hell fall right in with us. Were real excited about him coming over. There is a reason why he chose us.

Jagr chose the Flyers because he couldnt go home to Pittsburgh anymore. He felt everyone had disliked the way things ended there years ago, when he turned to free agency. He felt he had burned too many bridges. After all, no city in the U.S. has more bridges than the Burgh.

I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back, Jagr said. Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck. I didnt think it would be such a big deal that I didnt sign with Pittsburgh ...

If I hurt anybody, I apologize, because I didnt want to, but on the other side I just dont understand why people can be that mad about my decision.

He said he stood in front of a mirror the first day he put an orange Flyers jersey on and had to ask himself, Who is this?

Some things die hard. Jagr forever in Penguin black and gold is how some people will always remember him.

I had an ego back then, he said. It was a different life and different things.

Back then, he played on one of hockeys greatest scoring lines. In 1996-97, the line of Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux and Jagr dazzled the NHL with 187 points.

No one says Jagr, who scored 47 goals that season, is going to duplicate those numbers with his new linemates Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk but there is no reason not to expect that Jagr can score at least 25 goals and rack up at least 60 points.

Given the proficiency he displayed on the power play in preseason, it would not surprise anyone if Jagr were to get most of those points on special tams. His power play stats from three years with the Rangers: 29 points, 41 points and 52 points.

The hands dont lie. Jagr still has it in his hands. He feels there is just one major adjustment he needs to make.

Shorter turns, he said, meaning turning radius on North American ice which is less wide than rinks at the international level. Ive got to do everything here with shorter turns. Thats probably the toughest for me.

Watching Jagr on the ice, its hard to fathom anything being a chore for him. It looks so easy. Looks like, well, almost like two decades ago.

As a kid, I looked up to him, Giroux said. Obviously, one of the best players who every played. Any time you got a guy like that on your line, its pretty exciting. Im pretty excited to play with him.

Flyer coach Peter Laviolette tried to temper his enthusiasm of what this extraordinary athlete brings to the ice.

He scored a scored a lot of power play goals in his career, Laviolette said.

Jagr, who averages 1.26 points a game, has 181 career power play goals.

Chris Pronger? Eighty-two.

Danny Briere? Ninty-five.

Kimmo Timonen? Fifty-three.

When you bring a guy like that in, his experience and talent, you can only benefit, Laviolette said. Were looking for Jagr in a bigger role on the power play.

When camp was over, Jagr admitted he might have gleaned something from playing in Russia the last three years, but he wasnt quite what it was just yet.

Maybe I learned something there that I can use this season, he mused. Maybe had I stayed here it would have been a lot worse. Maybe I would have been injured.

The most important thing for me was that I was happy with my decision to come back. Thats what matters.
E-mail Tim Panaccio at tpanotch@comcast.net.

Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- Nick Bonino looks the part. Thatchy beard that juts out well below his chinstrap. Nose a bit askew. The rugged forward has etched out a career making a living in tight spaces, putting his body in places on the ice that aren't for the meek.

Those instincts, honed from years of finding order in the middle of chaos, lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins to the early lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bonino darted to the net and knocked in Kris Letang's centering pass with 2:33 remaining, lifting the Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.

Pittsburgh recovered after blowing an early two-goal lead and spoiled San Jose's long-awaited debut on the league's biggest stage. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Letang and Carl Hagelin took turns digging the puck out of the corner behind the San Jose net when Letang emerged with it and slipped it to Bonino, who collected himself and flicked it past Martin Jones' blocker for his fourth goal of the playoffs.

"Tanger put it right on my stick," Bonino said. "It was a shot that wasn't my hardest shot by any means but I kind of found a way to flip it over him."

Bonino has spent much of the last two months as the heady, understated center on Pittsburgh's hottest line while playing between hard-shooting Phil Kessel and Hagelin. Dubbed "HBK" -- a chant that occasionally greets them when they flip over the boards and onto the ice -- they have powered the Penguins to their first Cup Final in seven years. Yet it was Bonino, whose hockey IQ is considered his greatest attribute by Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, who scored the group's biggest goal of the postseason.

"He does all the things right and found himself in a great position and capitalized on it," Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. "Any time you're in the slot, get him the puck. It seems like we find a way to win when he scores."

Rookies Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary also scored for the Penguins, though Rust left in the third period after absorbing a shot to the head from San Jose's Patrick Marleau. Matt Murray -- who like Rust and Sheary spent a significant amount of time this season with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- finished with 24 saves.

Jones made 38 stops but couldn't get over in time on Bonino's knuckler. The Penguins threw 41 shots at Jones, the most he has faced in a regulation game during the playoffs. Marleau and Tomas Hertl scored during San Jose's dominant second period, but the Sharks spent a large portion of the third period on their heels and their dynamic power play failed to record a single shot when Ben Lovejoy went to the penalty box with 2:09 to play.

"They played their game for longer stretches than we did and that's what happens," San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said.

The Sharks made it to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history by rebuilding themselves on the fly. Two years removed from a brutal collapse from a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Los Angeles, San Jose ended a 9,005 day wait to play in the NHL's championship round by relying on a tough, aggressive style that squeezes opponents with a relentless forecheck while limiting chances in front of Jones.

Yet veterans Marleau and Joe Thornton -- the top two picks in the 1997 draft held in Pittsburgh who had waited nearly two decades to make it to the league's biggest stage -- insisted the Sharks were hardly satisfied after dispatching St. Louis in a cathartic Western Conference finals.

Maybe, but the Sharks looked a step slow -- maybe two steps slow -- while searching for their footing early on against the Penguins, who rallied from a 3-2 deficit to edge Tampa Bay in seven games to advance to their first Cup Final since 2009.

Rust, who surprisingly made the team out of training camp and became an unlikely playoff star by scoring both of Pittsburgh's goals in Game 7 against the Lightning, gave the Penguins the lead 12:46 into the first when he slammed home a rebound off a Justin Schultz shot for his sixth of the postseason, a franchise record for playoff goals by a rookie.

Less than a minute later, Sheary, who didn't become a regular until the middle of January, made it 2-0 when Sidney Crosby whipped a blind backhand cross-ice pass to Sheary's stick. Sheary's wrist shot from the right circle zipped by Jones, and the Penguins appeared to be in complete command by overwhelming the Sharks in a way few have in months.

Maybe it was the Penguins. Maybe it was jitters.

"You try to keep everything normal but you've been dreaming about it for a while," San Jose defenseman Brent Burns said. "Now we know what we're in for and we'll be better."

San Jose regained its composure during the first intermission and responded with a big surge. Hertl jammed a power-play shot from just outside the crease between Murray's legs 3:02 into the second to give the Sharks momentum. Late in the second, Marleau collected a rebound off a Burns one-timer behind the Pittsburgh net and then beat Murray on a wraparound that caromed off Murray's extended right leg and into the net.

Yet Bonino, who arrived in an offseason trade with Vancouver, helped the Penguins improve to 9-3 at home all-time in the Cup Final by sliding to a familiar spot in search of a familiar result.

Notes
San Jose went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 3. ... The Sharks are 5-1 following a loss during the postseason.

Gary Bettman talks NHL expansion, missing Ed Snider's presence, 2018 Winter Olympics

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Gary Bettman talks NHL expansion, missing Ed Snider's presence, 2018 Winter Olympics

PITTSBURGH -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered no clues on Monday during his annual Stanley Cup Final address as to the state of NHL expansion or the current odds that Las Vegas gets a franchise.
 
The league’s Board of Governors will meet on June 22 to make a decision on expansion. The earliest a team(s) could play would be 2017-18.
 
Quebec City is also in the running, but the value of the Canadian dollars weighs heavily against another team being added north of the border at the moment.
 
If a Vegas franchise is added, it would have a direct impact on Pacific Division clubs such as the Sharks, who take on the Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Monday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
 
Bettman refused to “handicap” the situation but said he expected to know at least a week in advance as to what the committee’s recommendation will be.
 
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said there are “a lot of on-going” issues related to expansion and some involve input from third parties.
 
“We’ve made good progress ... it hasn’t been quick progress,” Daly said.
 
Asked about rumors of the NFL, specifically the Oakland Raiders, going to Vegas and what that impact would mean to hockey, Bettman said he hasn’t even broached the topic of having two pro sports there with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or even considered such.
 
“If the NFL comes to Vegas at some point, so be it,” Bettman said. “We’re judging the application we have before us on the merits of that application.”
 
Bettman said the thought the NFL moving to Vegas, in his opinion, wasn’t “anywhere close to a done deal.”
 
Daly added that even if there is movement by the NFL toward Vegas, it would not be seen as a “deterrent” to the NHL expanding there.
 
Snider not replaced
Bettman said that former Flyers chairman Ed Snider’s spot on the 10-person executive and competition committees has not been filled since Snider's death in April.
 
Snider was an original member of the league’s competition committee and the only owner on it.
 
“He was a great owner and is terribly missed,” Bettman said.

More Olympic issues  
IOC President Thomas Bach and IIHF President Rene Fasel have gone on record they want to end paying the out-of-pocket expenses for NHL players to attend the Olympics.
 
That’s a non-starter for the NHL if both organizations want participation of the NHL's players at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The practice of subsidy has been in effect for the past five Winter Olympics.
 
“If they are unable to resolve the issue, I have no doubt it will have an impact on our decision,” Bettman said, adding the NHL would have to take a hard look at continued Olympic participation since its member clubs aren’t interested in putting up the “many, many millions” it would take to make up the financial gap.
 
Whenever there is change in the IOC leadership, Bettman said, there are always discussions of whether some sports, such as hockey, should receive subsidies.

Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Penguins set to battle in Game 1

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Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Penguins set to battle in Game 1

PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn't supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they'd become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.

Not that either side is complaining.

Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL's biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.

Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn't makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.

"I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things," Crosby said. "I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point."

It's a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL's most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.

General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose's window for success hadn't shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.

"I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did," Thornton said. "I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are."

The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.

Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby's tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.

True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.

Fresh faces
When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh's goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick's backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn't give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.

'HBK' is H-O-T
Pittsburgh's best line during the playoffs isn't the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.

Powerful Sharks
San Jose's brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.

Old men and the C(up)
Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.

"When I say 'Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say 'I was 2-years-old,'" Zubrus said.