PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Jaromir Jagr spent the days leading up to his return to Pittsburgh insisting it wasn’t personal. He stressed that he didn’t mean to cause hard feelings when he signed with the hated Philadelphia Flyers over the summer instead of with the Penguins, with whom he became a star two decades ago.
The Penguins are just another team, Jagr said—no different than Tampa Bay.
Funny, he didn’t play like it.
Seeming to revel in the chance to play the villain, Jagr punctuated his homecoming with his 12th goal of the season in a 4-2 Flyers victory on Thursday night.
“I felt pretty good but I had so many chances that if I would have scored five goals, nobody would be surprised,” Jagr said.
One was enough to prove that the 39-year-old Czech Republic native can still summon breathtaking hockey when he needs to.
Jagr missed an open net in the first period, then atoned late in the second. He took a pass from Claude Giroux in the high left slot, fended off Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik while skating through the zone, and flipped a backhander past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Flyers a lead they didn’t relinquish.
The second-leading scorer in Penguins history briefly raised his arms in triumph, then skated along the boards, offering a stone-faced salute as the Consol Energy Center crowd booed lustily.
“I think it was important for not just him but the whole team to get that goal because he got it pretty tough from the fans,” Giroux said. “But I think he kind of liked it a little bit.”
Jagr wasn’t the only former Penguins player to return in triumph. Max Talbot, who helped Pittsburgh to the 2009 Stanley Cup title, added an empty-net goal in the final seconds as the Flyers remained perfect in Pittsburgh’s new building since it opened a year ago.
Kimmo Timonen and Matt Read also scored for Philadelphia, which ended the Penguins’ four-game winning streak.
“I think the most important thing is we won,” Jagr said. “We won in Pittsburgh, and that’s tough.”
Tyler Kennedy had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh, and Jordan Staal scored his 15th of the season, but the Penguins spent most of the night being dominated by their cross-state rivals.
Talbot’s decision to sign with the Flyers as a free agent was met with raised eyebrows, but little anger.
Instead, the bad feelings were saved for Jagr, who served as Mario Lemieux’s boyish sidekick while taking the Penguins to back-to-back Cup titles in 1991 and ’92. Jagr played more than 800 games in a Pittsburgh uniform before being traded to Washington in 2001. He is second in franchise history behind Lemieux in goals, assists and points.
After flaming out in Washington, Jagr went on to a stint with the New York Rangers, and then a highly lucrative three-year sabbatical in Russia. He made overtures about returning to the Penguins for one last go-round during the summer only to opt for Philadelphia instead.
He has spent the first two months of the season appearing to not have lost a step, and he certainly looked like himself against his former team.
Skating with authority and weaving his way through traffic flawlessly at times, the 1999 NHL MVP seemed to feed off the venom directed his way.
There wasn’t nearly as much animosity for Talbot, who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, scoring both of Pittsburgh’s goals in a Game 7 victory over Detroit. The Penguins put together a brief video montage of Talbot’s time with the team and showed it during an early stoppage in play.
Talbot responded with a wave to the crowd that included one fan hoisting a sign that said, “We still love you Max.”
Even so, there were no cheers when Talbot’s empty-net goal blunted a late Pittsburgh rally.
At least Talbot got a sign. There were no such messages paying tribute to Jagr.
That was fine for Jagr and his teammates, who gathered themselves after Staal’s goal 46 seconds into the game gave Pittsburgh a quick lift.
Timonen’s power play goal—his first tally of the season—tied the game midway through the first, and the Flyers clamped down on Pittsburgh’s high-flying offence.
The Penguins have been steady even without injured captain Sidney Crosby, who remains sidelined with concussion-like symptoms. Yet they have struggled against the league’s top teams and have lost to Philadelphia (twice), Detroit, Boston and the New York Rangers in the last month.
“I don’t know if it’s a cause for concern, but we just need to bear down and win those games. I mean those are huge games,” Pittsburgh forward James Neal said. “We know they’re good hockey teams. The onus is on us, and we’ve got to play them harder and be the better team.”
The Flyers were certainly better on Thursday to move two points ahead of the Penguins in the standings. Yes, it’s only December and yes, it’s hard to evaluate the Penguins when Crosby’s status remains uncertain.
That is why Jagr didn’t go too far in his celebration. He might save that for the playoffs.
“(The Penguins) are a very good hockey club, no question about it—and they still don’t have Sidney Crosby,” Jagr said. “And they were right behind us in the standings, and we knew it was going to be a tough game, and it was a tough game.”
NOTES: Defenceman Deryk Engelland and forward Steve MacIntyre were scratched for the Penguins. Defenceman Matt Walker and forwards Zac Rinaldo and Jody Shelley sat out for Philadelphia. … The Penguins travel to New Jersey on Saturday while Philadelphia is off until Monday, when it hosts the New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park in the annual outdoor NHL Winter Classic.