Ailing wrist could hamper Jagr's first playoff series with Caps

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2003

ODENTON, Md. -- After years of beating the Washington Capitals in the playoffs, Jaromir Jagr finally gets a chance to help them win a series.

He just has to figure out a way to play with his sore right wrist.

''I cannot do things I could do before,'' said Jagr, staring at the wrist he broke nearly one month ago. ''I have to change it somehow. ... It's not good, but I'm not going to miss the playoffs.''

The uncertainty over Jagr's wrist dampens the excitement of his first playoff appearance with the sixth-seeded Capitals, who open their Eastern Conference series Thursday at Southeast Division winner Tampa Bay.

''I think everybody in the Washington organization has been looking forward to the day when Jaromir Jagr puts on his skates for his first playoff game,'' coach Bruce Cassidy said. ''We know how much he enjoys being the go-to guy in the playoffs -- I just hope his health allows him to do that.''

Half of the NHL's eight first-round, best-of-seven series begin Wednesday. Eastern Conference top seed Ottawa hosts the New York Islanders, while Western Conference regular-season champ Dallas faces Edmonton for the sixth time in seven years. Toronto opens at Philadelphia.

On Thursday, Detroit begins its Stanley Cup defense at home against Anaheim. Playoff-newcomer Minnesota is at Colorado, which won its NHL-record ninth straight division title. St. Louis, making its 24th consecutive playoff appearance, travels to Vancouver.

The Capitals, who expect to lose another $20 million this year, have invested $11 million per year in Jagr to get them over the playoff hump. Six times between 1991 and 2001 he helped Pittsburgh eliminate Washington in the playoffs, but injuries and adjustment pangs in a new city made his first season with his new team a disappointment. The Capitals didn't even make the playoffs a year ago.

Now it's payoff time.

''This is the main reason the organization wanted to get him, was to have the game-breaker in the playoffs,'' center Jeff Halpern said. ''We didn't get to see it last year. To know that when the game's on the line to have a guy like that, that can win a game for you, turn it around for you, this time of year that's so important.''

This season has been better for Jagr, but it's been far from smooth. He's had to form a relationship with rookie coach Cassidy, who never had to deal with superstars in the minor leagues and has had to tinker with some of the ideas he brought to the NHL.

Jagr played well early as the Capitals struggled, then hit a December goal drought that sapped his confidence even as the team zoomed into first place. Just when team, player, and coach were all hitting stride together, along came the wrist injury that cost him six games down the stretch.

Jagr returned two weeks ago against Montreal, but he hasn't been the same. He didn't score in the final six games, ending the season with a team-high 36 goals.

''Every day it's getting better and better,'' Jagr said. ''I might have come back too early, but I had to come back because I wanted to get into shape and be ready for the playoffs.''

Cassidy is concerned Jagr will put too much pressure on himself in the first few games against Tampa Bay. Jagr's reputation, his huge contract and the fact that the Capitals haven't won a playoff series since 1998 combine to make this series a near must-win for the franchise.

''If we don't put too much pressure on him in the first round, and that extra couple of weeks helps him, it allows him to be the guy,'' Cassidy said. ''But the spotlight's on him. He knows it. He relishes it.

''If we're going to go deep into the playoffs, we need him 100 percent. He's going to have to carry this team upfront. You can win a round if the power play gets hot, if your goaltender gets hot, but in the end he has to be the guy to lift us.''

The coach's words aside, Jagr knows the pressure is there.

''I don't know what people expect me to do,'' Jagr said. ''If they expect something good, that means they think I'm still a good player, and that's positive. I just have to make sure I satisfy them.''

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