The last time you most likely saw Jaromir Jagr play a hockey game was during the 2008 playoffs against the Penguins. During the regular season that year, Jagr had lost a step: For the first time since he came to New York, he looked just a little bit older, a little bit slower. His 71 points that year were 25 fewer than the previous season, and 52 fewer than the season before that. But in those playoffs — and especially in that series against Pittsburgh — he was a dynamo. The Rangers would lose the second-round series in five, but Jagr had accumulated fifteen points in the Rangers’ ten playoff games. It’s as if Jagr was conserving his energy for when it really counted, like a video-game athlete with a limited amount of turbo power.
Jagr’s two years older now — he has 42 points through 49 games in KHL, eight fewer than former middling Ranger Marcel Hossa and sixteen fewer than former Islanders scrub Mattias Weinhandl — but last night (or early this morning, actually), that’s the Jagr that we watched play for the Czech team in a 3–1 win over Slovakia. Jagr took a beating in the first period — after one particular crash into the boards, the CNBC cameras caught him hunched over on the bench — but he’d go on to score the game winner on a breakaway, and minutes later added an assist on Tomas Plekanec’s insurance goal.
Jagr no longer calls the New York area home, but those that do owned the rest of yesterday’s story lines: Patrick Elias scored the first goal of that game for the Czechs, Henrik Lundqvist recorded a shutout for Sweden, and Marian Gaborik made news simply by playing for Slovakia. As much as we’d been looking forward to a potential Jagr-Gaborik matchup (those two, after all, comprise the entirety of the Rangers’ post-lockout offensive identity), it was hard to enjoy it knowing that Gaborik wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent after suffering a lacerated thigh last week. He scored a goal, but he skated noticeably slower all night.
That, in a nutshell, is the best and worst thing about allowing NHL players in the Olympics. The players take it seriously, which in turn lets fans take it seriously. This is no exhibition: Players aren’t inventing injuries to stay out; they’re enduring existing ones to stay in. This level of intensity justifies the league’s decision to stop its schedule for two weeks. But we won’t lie: We cringed a little when they showed Gaborik testing his leg during pregame warm-ups. More than he did, probably.