Jagr at absolute best

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

NEW YORK -- On the first day of training camp, Jaromir Jagr guaranteed that his New York Rangers would make the playoffs.

There were a lot of skeptics then, just as there were a lot of skeptics about any contributions that Jagr himself might make toward that end.

But Jagr has been true to his word. The Rangers will make the playoffs and it has been Jagr who has led them to the promised land.

Last night he was dancing and dangling, playing games with the puck and with the Maple Leafs defenders. He scored the first goal, set up the next three and led his Rangers to a 5-2 dismantling of the Leafs.

In the process, Jagr became the first National Hockey League player to reach the 100-point plateau this season. He also passed Rod Gilbert to become the highest-scoring right winger in Rangers history.

Those feats were mentioned to him, but he shrugged them off.

"I stopped looking at stats four years ago," he said. "Then I had four straight seasons with 45 goals. I had the streak and I wanted to keep doing that, but I lost it.

"I found the other side. The team doesn't go the right way and nothing is working for you no matter how hard you try. And that's why now I feel like I appreciate the team victory a lot more than I did before."

While his teammates gushed about his achievements, Jagr kept it all in perspective.

"We still have 15 games left and we haven't accomplished anything yet," he said. "Our goal from the first game was to make the playoffs. There weren't many happy faces in here four days ago."

But there were plenty of happy faces last night. You've got to give the Leafs credit for making the league a happier place. Wherever they go, they cheer up the opposition's dressing room.

The Leafs started well last night and played a strong first period, allowing only Jagr's laser shot over Mikael Tellqvist's shoulder. And they held the Rangers to only three first-period shots, a laudable effort under the circumstances.

But the Rangers got three goals in the second period, two of them on the power play, all of them set up by Jagr.

Fortunately for the Leafs, they don't have to play the Rangers again this year. In the four-game season series, Jagr had six goals and four assists.

"When you look at those games," he said, "there were a lot of power plays, both for the Maple Leafs and for us. We scored a lot of goals on the power play."

But Jagr's offensive domination can't be measured by statistics alone. When he had the puck, the Leafs seemed powerless to get it off him. He cruised around the Toronto zone, deking one defender after another, leaving them spinning in his wake and gradually getting further and further out of position.

When he finally unleashed the attack, the Leafs were scrambling and frantically trying to do something to stop the onslaught.

"He has played some pretty good games this year," Rangers coach Tom Renney said, "and this would have to rank as one of his best.

"He was certainly on a mission. He wanted this one badly, obviously, and he did the things a leader has to do to demonstrate clearly to his teammates that there is a way to play this game with and without the puck."

Without the puck? It seemed that when Jagr was on the ice last night, that circumstance arose only rarely.

It was a brilliant performance by a brilliant player who not only is the league's leading scorer, but its most exciting performer.

And it just happened to put another nail in the Leafs' coffin.


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