Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jagr Turns Back The Clock: Tricks USA in Czech win

Special players rise to the occasion. Performing on the big stage has never been a problem for Jaromir Jagr. The former NHL great turned back the clock with a vintage game in today's quarterfinal between Team USA and the Czech Republic at the World's. No.68 dialed it up, notching a hat trick to lead the Czechs past an overmatched young American squad 4-0 in Bratislava- advancing the defending champs to the semifinals before a raucous atmosphere that featured overwhelming support.

As Zach Parise said during intermission on Versus, "What can you say about this guy?" Like many, he's seen it before with Jagr victimizing the Devils a few Springs ago in the last Battle Of Hudson. The speed isn't the same but the instincts along with incredible hockey sense are for the now 39 year-old who the Pens are rumored to have interest in. Could a Pittsburgh reunion be in the works for GM Ray Shero? Jagr's contract with Avangard Omsk ran out but he may stay put. Of course, the wider hockey surface benefits his style- allowing him more room and space to create along the wall.

Personally, I'd love to see Jagr return to the NHL for one more go round. In 1,273 career games, No.68's tallied 646 goals along with 953 assists totaling 1,599. If he came back, a few milestones are attainable with JJ needing one point for 1,600, 47 helpers for 1,000 and 54 goals to join the 700 Goal Club. If he played 27 games, the former Blueshirt would hit 1,300. While the point would be easy, the other two might be more difficult. It's hard to gauge how an older and slower Jagr would do back on the smaller North American ice. With more of an emphasis on speed, could his body hold up over an 82 game schedule? Of course, if he played with say Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, that would certainly benefit him. Imagine what Pens games would be like. Super Mario II ring a bell? A Pens ticket would become a hot commodity, which would benefit a league where attendance isn't always positive despite what spin the NHL puts out.

Of course, all this is wild speculation. Fun to envision. One thing about Jagr. He's still quite potent on the power play where two of his three markers came, including a familiar 5-on-3 one-timer that deflected off Mike Komisarek's stick past Ty Conklin for the Czechs' second of the day. Jagr started the scoring when he took full advantage of a Kevin Shattenkirk turnover, beating Conklin through the wickets on a mini-break late in a first period controlled by Scott Gordon's younger club.
Our country lost their discipline in a poor middle stanza. James van Riemsdyk's silly elbow handed the Czechs a two-man advantage. After some strong penalty killing along with a couple of big stops by Conklin on Marek Zidlicky, the Czech Republic used a timeout to rest their top unit. It paid dividends when Roman Cervenka dished across for a quick Jagr rocket that Conklin had no chance on. He actually was in good position before the puck changed direction due to Komisarek.

Due in large part to special teams, Team USA never got any quality chances on Thrasher netminder Ondrej Pavelec (29 saves), who denied Nashville prospect Craig Smith in the first. Gordon's club did blow their own abbreviated 5-on-3 prior to Jagr connecting, staking the Czechs to a two-goal lead after 40 minutes. The U.S. effort was better in the third but they never were able to match their more experienced opponents' firepower. Czech Republic had a loaded roster that included Devil Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec (Mtl), Michal Frolik (Chi), Jakub Voracek (CBJ), Milan Michalek (Ott), Zbynek Michalek (Pit) along with former NHLers Petr Prucha, Jiri NovotnyKarel Rachunek, Lukas Krajicek and Martin Skoula. Cervenka, former Ranger draft pick Jan Marek and Czech captain Tomas Rolinek are no strangers to international play.

Conversely, Team USA's roster was comprised mostly of kids who didn't represent us in Vancouver when our country was runner-up to Canada in one of the most memorable games ever. It still hurts. Ranger Derek Stepan was held off the scoresheet for the first time along with linemates Blake Wheeler (Atl) and Van Riemsdyk (Phi). In seven games, Stepan paced us with seven points. Others who played well included Smith, Devil Nick Palmieri, Ryan Shannon (Ott), Jack Skille (Fla), Jack Johnson (LA), captain Mark Stuart (Atl), Ryan McDonagh (NYR), Cam Fowler (Ana) and future Blueshirt Chris Kreider. Komisarek (Tor), Shattenkirk (Stl), ex-Blue Yan Stastny , Tim Stapleton (Atl), Paul Gaustad (Buf), Mike Brown (Tor), Chris Porter (Stl) and Clay Wilson (Fla) also rounded out the roster along with Islander Al Montoya.

The difference in skill level was evident on the Czechs' final two tallies. A Stepan mistake in the neutral zone led to a quick set up for Plekanec, who wired one top shelf for 3-zip. A frustrated Stuart slash late allowed Jagr to turn the trick when No.68 worked a textbook give-and-go with Plekanec, who found him for an easy finish to plenty of salutes from a pro-Czech crowd that included painted faces and funky outfits in their flag colors. European fans are classic. One day, I have to go see a game overseas. Just for the atmosphere itself along with a unique culture, it'll be worth it.

While Czech Republic awaits the Germany-Sweden winner, tomorrow features a heavyweight quarter match between Russia and Canada. Versus is airing it live at 2 ET. If you get a chance to tune in, don't miss it! With Detroit and San Jose off after another amazing performance from Pavel Datsyuk, who along with Niklas Kronwall have helped the Red Wings rally from an 0-3 hole to even the series, you can catch an encore of the Jagr Show at 8 tonight.

I was going to do a separate entry on this series, which has become the second this postseason that needs a Game 7 after one team led 3-0. We saw it in Round One when the Blackhawks rallied to not only force a deciding game but got a Jonathan Toews shorthanded goal with two minutes left, taking the Canucks to sudden death before Alex Burrows rescued the city of Vancouver. Now, it's another experienced former champion standing up to make it the kinda series I envisioned. I took the Sharks in seven. So, it's not surprising that tomorrow will see an epic conclusion to a classic Conference Semifinal where basically every game's been decided by a goal sans a late Darren Helm empty netter that sent The Joe into a frenzy.

It's been a hard fought battle all the way with San Jose prevailing by one the first three, including a pair of OT winners from Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. To Detroit's credit, they fought back with two one-goal triumphs, including a miraculous third period comeback with Jonathan Ericsson, Kronwall and Tomas Holmstrom scoring in succession to stun HP Pavilion in Game 5. Game 6 was incredible with unbelievable netminding from Antti Niemi (42 saves) giving his team a chance to steal it. When Logan Couture nudged Dany Heatley's rebound across the line, the Sharks led with 16:06 left. But Jimmy Howard (24 saves) also made a few clutch stops including a ridiculous glove save off a tricky Heatley deflection. The Wings wouldn't be denied when Valterri Filppula found a pinching Kronwall for a shot Henrik Zetterberg redirected.

They took advantage of a terrible San Jose change with Filppula steering home a ridiculous backhand saucer feed from who else but Datsyuk. Datsyukian as I refer to him on Twitter is amazing. He's playing with a bad wrist and took only one key defensive draw late last night and won it. Whatever pain he's in, you wouldn't know it. I've said it before. Not to sound like an echo, but there's no more complete player than Pavel Datsyuk. The man is a magician with the puck who never takes a shift off. His backchecking is second to none even though I think Ryan Kesler wins his first Selke. I love Kes, who reminds me of Mark Messier. He's having a great playoffs. But if you were to ask me who my favorite player is to watch, it's Datsyuk. The man is all heart. He only got one point last night but it's his constant play with and without the puck that is breathtaking. Take his wizardry that made Jeremy Roenick target Patrick Marleau dizzy before feeding Nick Lidstrom for Holmstrom's decider the other day. It's just remarkable.

The Red Wings will attempt to become the fourth team to make it all the way back from 3-0 behind. Can they join the '42 Maple Leafs, '75 Islanders and last year's Flyers, who went to Game 6 before falling to Chicago in sudden death? It shouldn't be easy at one of the best home ice advantages in the league. It's not like the Sharks have played poorly. Yesterday was their first bad game. Without Niemi, it's not a contest. None of that matters. Something Todd McLellan pointed out in his press conference. Game 7 is about stars. It's where heroes are born. San Jose should have Ryane Clowe back to reunite with Couture and Heatley, who've been their best line. Joe Thornton has played better hockey than any other playoffs. Pavelski is as clutch as it gets and Setoguchi has been everywhere. Is this the game Marleau shows? It's all on the line.

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