Rangers content to let Jagr play the way he wants

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

Marilyn Monroe wasn't much of a cook.

Now, you could either ditch her, as her first husband James Dougherty did, or buy a little more takeout and enjoy being married to Marilyn Monroe.

Jaromir Jagr is a lot like Marilyn Monroe was. Nice to look at. Hard to direct.

"I don't like to play when somebody tells me how to play," Jagr was saying the other day.

That is fine by the New York Rangers, who are enjoying a renaissance season on the back of the league's past and present glamour boy.

With 24 games to play, Jagr is poised to win his sixth Art Ross Trophy on the strength of a league-leading 40 goals and 88 points. The sixth scoring title would put him dead even with Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe. Only Wayne Gretzky, with 10, has more.

The 34-year-old Jagr has spent the past two nights displaying his superb skills against the Maple Leafs and the results have been convincing.

Jagr scored twice and added an assist in New York's 4-2 victory on Friday and added two more goals in the Rangers' victory over Toronto by the same score last night.

Jagr gave a nod to Lemieux, his longtime teammate, as the inspiration for his first-period goal, a bank-shot off the pads of Leafs goalie Ed Belfour from a terrible angle.

"My first goal (last night), I learned that from Mario. He scored a lot of them like that from behind the net."

For Jagr, the math is Gretzkyesque, seven goals and five assists over the past five games, all wins.

It wasn't so long ago that Jagr, long the league's dominant long-haired manchild, was so unwanted in Washington that the Capitals were willing to pick up nearly half of a contract that would have paid him $77 million US over seven seasons. It also was the heyday of the neutral zone trap. Every trip to the net meant tacking a carload of hangers-on.

When the Capitals acquired Jagr from Pittsburgh on July 11, 2001, they thought his acquisition would result in higher ticket sales. However, the Capitals' gate remained anemic, and he became a symbol of the bloated excess of the fat-cat contracts that precipitated the lockout.

Jagr was bored, and though capable of superb play, there wasn't that much in it for him. He already had won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, so there was no real drive to punctuate his career with a championship. He seemed ready to pack it in.

But the trade to New York landed him on the doorstep of coach Tom Renney. And Renney, unlike Bruce Cassidy and Glen Hanlon in Washington and James Dougherty in California, didn't worry whether Jagr could do the housekeeping.

And that just left Jagr more time and energy for offence. As a result the Rangers are wholly unexpected contenders in the Eastern Conference.

The interesting thing about Jagr's game is that sometimes it's based on subtle intelligence, not unstoppable rushes to the net. You already know about his first goal. The second one came when he took a misdirected pass that bounced off the skate of Leafs defenceman Jay Harrison and ripped it past Belfour. Nobody else was close.

"He's unstoppable out there, he really is," said teammate Steve Rucchin. "If he wants, he has the puck and there's not a lot of things guys can do about it."

Jagr enters the Olympics as the dominant player in the league and the leader of what promises to be a terrific team from the Czech Republic.

"For now, I'm getting paid by the New York Rangers," Jagr said. "It's my job first of all. Hopefully I can play the same way in the Olympics but also hopefully I come back and even play better for the New York Rangers."

It all goes back, he said, to freedom.

"As long as I score goals," he said, smiling, "everything is fine."


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