VOORHEES, N.J. – Jaromir Jagr’s long hair that once flowed beneath his helmet is much shorter now, and his playoff beard has plenty of grey in it.
Like the man he’ll be shooting pucks at in the next round of the playoffs, Jagr is the old man in the dressing room these days. But both Jagr and Martin Brodeur have shown they have plenty of game left.
The familiar foes will meet again when the Philadelphia Flyers open the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New Jersey Devils at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s going to be special, that’s for sure,” Jagr said. “He’s going to turn 40 and I’m already 40.”
Jagr and Brodeur were selected in the same round of the 1990 NHL entry draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins chose Jagr, the tall, slender forward from Czechoslovakia, with the fifth overall pick. Brodeur, the skinny goalie from Montreal, went to the Devils at No. 20.
Great moves for both teams.
“He’s been a great player for a lot of years,” Brodeur said. “It’s a pleasant surprise that he can play this well at this level in the NHL after being away. He’s always been a tough player to go up against. It’s a big challenge, but we can’t focus on one guy. We can’t say that if we just take care of Jagr, we’ll be in good shape. They have a ton of players who can create problems for us.”
Jagr teamed with Mario Lemieux to help lead the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cup championships as a teenager his first two seasons in 1991-92. He won an MVP award and five scoring titles in 11 seasons with Pittsburgh before going to Washington and the New York Rangers. He returned to the NHL last summer, signing with the Flyers after a three-year stint in Russia.
Jagr had 19 goals and 35 assists for 54 points in the regular season, helping a young team that had dramatically changed its roster with his veteran leadership and his skills. Jagr showed no signs of slowing down in the playoffs, recording a goal and six assists in Philadelphia’s first-round victory over the Penguins in six games.
“You’re talking about a terrific hockey player who has come in here and provided terrific leadership and work ethic,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. “I’ve really enjoyed having him here. The way he’s played the game really speaks for itself.”
Jagr turned down an offer from the Penguins to join the Flyers because he thought it was a better opportunity. Many others would’ve chosen to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Jagr made the right choice.
“I came back from Russia to have a chance to play in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs,” Jagr said. “I want to help this team to win.”
Then there’s Brodeur.
He’s a four-time Vezina Trophy winner and a nine-time All-Star who has led the Devils to three Stanley Cup championships.
Brodeur will celebrate his 40th birthday next Sunday when the teams play Game 4 of their series in New Jersey. He had 31 wins, a 2.41 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in the regular season.
After getting pulled in Game 3 of the opening-round series against Florida, Brodeur rebounded with a record-setting 24th playoff shutout in Game 4. He was excellent in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 6, and brilliant in a 3-2 double-overtime victory in Game 7. Brodeur made 43 saves in the final game, including several that kept the Devils alive.
“He was outstanding, especially in the first overtime and late in the third period,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “He was our best player and he had to be or we don’t win.”
Brodeur has been a longtime nemesis for the Flyers, beating them in the conference finals in 1995 and 2000 en route to capturing Stanley Cup titles both times. But the Flyers defeated Brodeur and the Devils in their past two playoff series in 2004 and 2010.
“They have one of the best goalies who’s ever played the game,” Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. “We’re going to have our hands full and it’s going to be exciting.”
The teams took different paths to get to this point. The Flyers knocked off the heavily favoured Penguins in a wide-open series that featured 56 goals. They haven’t played since last Sunday, and rested while waiting for an opponent.
The Devils had a grueling series that ended early Friday morning in Florida. They had one day off before returning to practice Saturday.
Flyers star Claude Giroux emerged as one of the game’s elite players in the series against Pittsburgh. He set a franchise record with 14 points on six goals and eight assists. Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn join Giroux and Jagr on an offence that doesn’t have trouble scoring goals.
“They did an incredible job against Pittsburgh,” Devils forward Zach Parise said. “We have to know it’s coming and we have to expect it’s coming. They still play physical and they have great players. They’re a great team.”
Stopping shots is the problem for Philadelphia. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov struggled most of the series against the Penguins before settling down in a 5-1 win in Game 6. If that Bryzgalov shows up this round, then Brodeur won’t give the Devils a decided advantage in net.
The Flyers will be worried about another Ilya. Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 37 goals and 83 points in the regular season, had a team-high eight points (two goals, six assists) in the six games against the Flyers. Kovalchuk had two goals and three assists against Florida. Parise and Patrik Elias have also given the Flyers fits over the years.
The Devils got all 18 of their goals against the Panthers from their forwards. Travis Zajac had three, including the OT winner in Game 6. Rookie Adam Henrique had a pair in Game 7, including the OT winner.
“If you want to be successful against a team like Philly, you have to play well 5-on-5,” Elias said. “We can’t let them get their power play clicking like they did against Pittsburgh. They have a really good group of guys who are very interchangeable. We have to keep our emotions under control and not get frustrated. We still have to be physical. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”