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NEWARK, N.J. – Jaromir Jagr stood at his locker and couldn’t help but enjoy the moment with some laughs. After all, through 20 seasons, he has earned the right to create some fun even if the New Jersey Devils are trying to wiggle their way into playoff contention in late December.
The 41-year-old on Wednesday scored his 693rd goal, which proved to be the game-winner in his team’s convincing 5-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators, and surpassed Gordie Howe for the most in NHL history.
When asked what he knew about the legend, Jagr smiled.
“I never played against him,” he cracked. “Hey, it’s Mr. Hockey, so it’s a big honor for me to break the record. I guess it’s the only one Wayne Gretzky doesn’t have, so until someone breaks it I can enjoy it.”
“It’s great,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “It’s an unbelievable feat, especially with the names on the list he’s around and passed. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”
At the 2:08 mark of the second, Travis Zajac picked up a loose puck after Andy Greene was checked into the side board and found Jagr in front of the crease for a goal that ballooned New Jersey’s lead to 3-0.
“That’s what you practice,” Jagr added. “It’s all about scoring the game-winning goals.”
More importantly, though, Jagr’s team-leading 12th score helped an inconsistent squad finally play with some ease at a critical part of the campaign. After blanking Tampa Bay, 3-0, over the weekend, this banner night for a future Hall of Famer gave the Devils a much-needed confidence boost heading into a tough weekend against Anaheim on Friday and at Washington on Saturday.
“It’s going to be very, very tough,” Jagr said. “We have to play Anaheim, one of the best teams. For me, (Ryan) Getzlaf is the MVP. It’s going to be a big challenge. To play against them down low, it’s pretty tough.”
Suddenly, you get he feeling this club is ready to bang with the big boys. The Devils absorbed a one-goal loss to top-seeded Pittsburgh on Friday, but responded with a strong effort against the Lightning.
Then, they not only benefited from the ever-reliable Jagr, but also received some offensive support from youngsters Reid Boucher, who netted his first career goal, and Eric Gelinas. Even Damien Brunner continued his hot streak, registering his fourth tally in four games.
“It’s the first time in a while we had a game under control,” Jagr said. “There was a little bit of a slip when they scored that power-play goal, but we made it 4-1 and we were able to save some energy for the next two games. We didn’t have to go all the way in, we had the lead, and we could play our game. We didn’t have to press and try to score goals. It’s a lot easier to just play our game.”
That’s how this plan was drawn up from the start. It’s been no secret New Jersey has been without a superstar to lean upon ever since Zach Parise bolted for Minnesota and Ilya Kovalchuk left for native Russia. Coming into the season, DeBoer figured if he can get steady production from a plethora of capable figures, the Devils would find a way to sneak into the playoffs.
Ten players have notched double-digit point totals so far, so this is the type of hockey Jagr and company will have to play.
“It’s nice,” DeBoer said. “I was glad for Boucher; he could’ve had three or four now, so hopefully this opens the door for him to bang a few more in. We got a goal from that line, we got a goal from (Patrik) Elias’ line, we got a goal from Jagr’s line on the power play. That’s the kind of balanced attack we need. We haven’t had that, and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.”
Hand on his heart, DeBoer swears the Devils aren’t frantically looking at the standings every morning, but it’s hard to avoid a gut-wrenching feeling when noticing that they are tied with four teams at 34 points – one behind eighth-place Carolina.
Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider have been better in goal lately, but the pair still rank 25th in save percentage. So that brings us back to the offense, without much identity, and the only true saving grace is the man who wore a smile after another much-needed win.
Jagr came to New Jersey as a question mark – even Brodeur admitted he wondered how he’d fit in – but now there’s no doubt it’s his team, for better or for worse.
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