The day Jaromir Jagr (probably) saved the Penguins

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With Jaromir Jagr officially off to the Czech Republic to continue what is left of his professional hockey career it is entirely possible that we have seen the last of him in the NHL.

It would not exactly be a fitting farewell for what is, by pretty much any objection evaluation, one of the most productive careers in the history of the sport. But then again Jagr’s career was always full of sudden changes and moves.

Throughout a career that touched three different decades, Jagr played for nine different NHL teams (Pittsburgh, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, New Jersey, Florida, and Calgary) and also took a three-year hiatus to play in Russia.

He won scoring titles, an MVP award, two Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal and ended up in the top-three for games played, goals and total points in league history.

He had his moments for pretty much every team he played for, but his time with the Penguins, the team that drafted him in the first-round of the 1990 NHL draft (No. 5 overall) is what his career will probably end up being defined by. He was at his most dominant with the Penguins, he won his two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, and along with Mario Lemieux helped form one of the most dominant duos the league has ever seen.

Having been born in Pittsburgh and still living there to this day, my boss here at PHT, Sean Leahy, asked me if I had any particular memories from Jagr’s time with the Penguins that were worth sharing after watching him for so many years.

Most people from Pittsburgh that watched Jagr up close might look at one of the Stanley Cup Final runs and one of the many huge goals he scored on the way to a championship — such as his overtime goal against New Jersey in 1991, or the incredible individual effort against Chicago in 1992 to complete the Penguins’ epic Game 1 comeback. Or perhaps just marveling at the numbers he put up during the NHL’s dead-puck era.

But the moment that always stood out to me was his performance in the first-round of the 1999 playoffs against the New Jersey Devils, specifically his effort in Game 6 of that series.


The late 90s Penguins were a bizarre team to look back on.

Lemieux had retired for the first time, Ron Francis had left as a free agent, and Jagr was the focal point of a team that, other than him, was usually pretty mediocre.

They never really had a top-pairing defenseman, they struggled to find a true No. 1 goalie, and while they had a couple of really good forwards like Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka, it really wasn’t a team that was built to win — or even seriously compete for — a Stanley Cup.

But because Jagr was so dominant and so game-changing that they always at least had a chance to make the playoffs.

The 1998-99 season was a particularly challenging one for the Penguins off the ice because the team was going through bankruptcy proceedings with Lemieux working on his plan to ultimately rescue it.

There was serious talk that the team might actually be dissolved if Lemieux’s plan failed.

Not relocated. Dissolved.

The Penguins still managed to make the playoffs that year as the No. 8 seed and ended up with a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Devils. They were heavy underdogs, not only because of the fact the Devils simply had a better team, but also because Jagr was dealing with a severe groin injury that sidelined him for four of the first five games of the series.

He was able to return to the lineup for Game 6 with the Penguins facing elimination.

Even though he was clearly not 100 percent, he not only played the game on what was basically one leg, he played 29 of the 68 minutes in the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime win.

And he was by far the best player on the ice, turning in one of the most single dominant performances of his NHL career. He tied the game with just over two minutes to play in regulation, then won it in overtime to force a Game 7 in New Jersey two nights later (the Penguins, led by Jagr, won that game as well to advance to the second round).

But it wasn’t just the two goals that stood out. It was simply the way he played. Take a look at the highlights from that game. New Jersey never had an answer for him.

Given the context of everything around that day — the financial state of the team and its uncertain future, the fact the Penguins were expected to lose, Jagr playing through a major injury and dominating — it was just a mind-blowing performance.

Back in 2013 Jagr recalled that game and called the overtime goal one of the biggest goals of his career.

“I remember that like it happened yesterday,” Jagr said. “I pulled my groin in the first game. We were losing 3-2 in the series and if we would lose the first round I think the team would move to Kansas City because they had no money. We had to make the second round to get the (money) for the payments.

Jagr continued: “I came back and I tied it with a minute-and-a-half to go and then I scored in overtime. That was probably my best game ever, I would say. My most important for sure. I’ll probably never score a goal that important.

“Probably if I hadn’t scored that goal the team wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh right now. (Sidney) Crosby would be in Kansas City.”

The Penguins ended up losing in the second-round to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but there was no denying how important it was in a financial sense for the team to get to the second-round that season.

Lemieux ultimately ended up rescuing the team from bankruptcy and ended up returning to the ice for another run with Jagr.

After the 2001 season Jagr’s Penguins career to an end with the trade that sent him to the Capitals for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk, marking the beginning of the second half of his career that saw him bounce around the NHL every couple of years.

Including playoffs, Jagr scored 844 goals in the NHL, with 504 of them coming as a member of the Penguins.

Given what it meant for the long-term viability of the franchise, there is an argument to be made that none were bigger than the two goals he scored in the spring of 1999, even if they did not result in a Stanley Cup that season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.