SUN Hockey Pool

68 is feelin' great

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

A happy Jaromir Jagr is an explosive Jaromir Jagr, which much of the NHL has re-discovered this season.

With the porous defensive approach being employed by the Maple Leafs, it's going to be interesting to see what Jagr can accomplish tomorrow at the Air Canada Centre. It will be his first visit to Toronto in the reborn NHL that has been a boon for talented forwards and killer for slow defencemen and puck-handling goalies.

Jagr is tied for the NHL lead in goals with 17, and has 28 points, which was tied for third entering play last night. He's a far cry from the player who could not get out of Washington fast enough a couple of years ago.

"Are you saying I was bad?" Jagr, in reference to benefiting from the open NHL, said to reporters in Pittsburgh on Saturday after recording his 13th career hat trick. "I think what has happened is to the benefit of (all) the forwards."

Teammate Kevin Weekes said Jagr, the highest-paid NHL player at $8.36 million US, has been in a positive frame of mind since the beginning of the season.

"He has been kind of calming," Weekes said. "After the first intermission (of a season-opening win against the Philadelphia Flyers), he was kind of like: 'Guys, relax, everything is going to be okay.' Same thing after the second intermission. And we came back and won the game, which not many people expected us to do. When any of us hear a guy of his stature say that, it's reassuring."

The Rangers are among the biggest surprises so far. They are 11-5-2-1, and with 25 points, are in first in the Atlantic Division. The Rangers have won the first three games of five in a row on the road.

"I would have to say that getting out on the road and just laughing and working and practising and all that kind of stuff gives you a chance to bond," coach Tom Renney said.

"Right now, it's good chemistry."

MISSING STEVENS

The New Jersey Devils used a pair of one-goal wins to take a home-and-home set from the Washington Capitals but overall are sitting at a very ordinary 8-7-1-1 mark.

A number of factors -- goalie Martin Brodeur's inability to handle the puck like he used to, the inability to use the neutral-zone trap with regularity -- have contributed to the Devils' sluggish start. But none, apparently, as much as the loss to retirement of captain Scott Stevens.

"Even if Scotty wouldn't be able to play the same way, we would still have that presence," forward John Madden told the New York Post. "We have to accept we don't have that presence anymore. As soon as guys come to grips with that, we can create a new identity and the beginning of a new era. We have to prove ourselves in this new league."

Nor does it help that Scott Niedermayer took advantage of free agency to leave for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

FORGET ABOUT IT

It's rare to see an NHL team crash as hard as the Carolina Hurricanes did when they were crushed 9-0 by the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday. The Hurricanes' worst loss since moving to North Carolina from Hartford in 1997 ended a franchise-record nine-game winning streak. Rod Brind'Amour was asked what the team could learned from the loss.

"Nothing," Brind'Amour said. "You just leave it and move on. Whether you lose 1-0 or 9-0, you still lost. It was a horrible game and we have to let it go."

IN THE PAST

The lost NHL season because of the lockout was especially difficult for Tim Connolly of the Buffalo Sabres, who was ready to go last year after missing all of 2003-04 because of post-concussion syndrome.

"It was tough to stay positive," said Connolly, whose highlight goal burned the Leafs on Friday. "But it's something that is behind me and I don't want to talk about anymore because I don't want to think about it when I am playing."

Connolly, 24, played 16 games in Switzerland during the lockout. The Syracuse native was a first-round pick by the New York Islanders in 1999 but has not met expectations.

ICE CHIPS

If Jeremy Roenick was picking the roster for the U.S. Olympic team, he would be on it. "There's no question I think I should be on the team," Roenick said. "I've represented the team very well in the past, and there's only a couple of Americans who have more points than I do. I would be extremely disappointed if I wasn't picked. I would consider it a slap in the face." ... Florida Panthers rookie Anthony Stewart, a Scarborough native, underwent surgery Saturday and had pins inserted into his right wrist. Stewart, who was hurt Friday against Carolina, "will definitely be back in the second half of the season," coach Jacques Martin said.

THE WEEK AHEAD

The Leafs play host to the Thrashers on Saturday, the first game between the clubs since the brawl-fest on Oct. 14 ... The St. Louis Blues put their club-record 11-game losing streak on the line Wednesday when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets ... Panthers forward Joe Nieuwendyk, who has been out because of a bad back, is travelling with the team and could return Saturday against the Islanders.


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