PITTSBURGH - Jaromir Jagr skated down the wing yesterday, as he always has, and blasted a high-rising slap shot. The shot missed Ilya Bryzgalov's outstretched glove and shattered the pane of glass behind the net into a million pieces, for all the cameras to see.
It was perhaps a fitting entrance for the Pittsburgh legend, back for the first time since spurning the Penguins in free agency on July 1, his relationship with the fan base as fractured as the chunks of glass on the Ice Castle floor in Castle Shannon, Pa.
After repeated reports last June suggested that Jagr was destined to return to Pittsburgh - "where my heart is" - he went radio silent. Talks fell through. The Flyers offered more money ($3.3 million to Pittsburgh's $2 million) and the flexibility to play on the top line with Claude Giroux.
Pittsburgh fans were stunned. But not nearly as shocked as Flyers fans, who had grown accustomed to hating a player who spent his career with the rival Penguins, Capitals and Rangers.
Tonight, Jagr brings back to Pittsburgh his resume that includes two Stanley Cup rings, five Art Ross trophies as the NHL's leading scorer, and his 1999 Hart Trophy as league MVP - all of which he garnered in a Penguins uniform. It will be his first game in Pittsburgh since March 30, 2008.
But he also returns a changed man - far from the rock star he was when he left in 2001, now a laid-back and thoughtful leader. And even with all of the emotion surrounding the game, the surroundings will be different in his first game at Consol Energy Center.
The iconic silver bubble across the street at Mellon Arena, where he worked his magic nightly from 1990-2001, was torn off the dilapidated building to make commemorative Christmas ornaments and coins.
"I don't want to prove anybody anything," Jagr said yesterday after practice. "I don't think I would play my game tomorrow night if I tried to show somebody.
"Plus, I don't have it anymore."
Today, it is impossible to re-examine Jagr's choice in July and second-guess him. With the Flyers, he has 30 points in 31 games. He remains every bit as gifted as his 1,629 career points would suggest.
"Am I surprised? Not really," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I know talking to Zbynek [Michalek, Penguins defenseman] this summer and the guys that were at the world championships, he was motivated, a real good player there as well. That was part of the reason we were interested. He's been very good on that line, he's been very good for their power play, and those were a lot of things we saw him with our team and with a [Evgeni] Malkin and a [Sidney] Crosby."
To see his impact on the Flyers, though, would be to take a glimpse beyond the statistics and into the locker room. Jagr is the ultimate professional. He stickhandles on a game day with weights on his stick. He will diagram a play with a teammate even after a four-goal win.
And Jagr loves to play the role of mentor, something he said is a tip of the cap to players like Joe Mullen and Ron Francis who pushed him through the ranks.
"Being an older, highly accomplished player, he could have easily came here and kept to himself," said Flyers rookie Harry Zolnierczyk, who grew up playing as Jagr in video games. "He will always come up to you and pick your brain; you can talk hockey with him whenever. There isn't anything that he doesn't bring. He offers his advice and knowledge to everyone. It's pretty special to learn from him."
Zolnierczyk said everything in Jagr's game is an "exact calculation," which makes it seem that ending up in Philadelphia was no accident.
"Getting an opportunity to work with him, I think you really get to appreciate the work that he puts in," coach Peter Laviolette said. "His work ethic, his demeanor he takes to the rink every day, his professionalism - the guy stays late, he's out there and he works extra. He sets a tremendous example for our young players. He's been excellent."
Bryz gets rest?
One day after perhaps his worst outing of the season, Ilya Bryzgalov was back on the ice yesterday working with goaltending coach Jeff Reese. Bryzgalov gave up four goals on the first 10 shots Tampa Bay took Tuesday. His save percentage is 64th in the NHL.
"I have 40 more games before the playoffs," Bryzgalov said. "Just continue to work hard and find where is the problem. Hoping the bounces start turning my way and not against us, because every game we have two goals and bad bounces. Someday, it has to stop, probably."
Though Peter Laviolette said he does not believe Bryzgalov is "questioning himself," tonight might be the perfect time to start Sergei Bobrovsky. For his career, Bobrovsky is 3-1-1 against Pittsburgh with a 2.16 goals-against average. All three of those wins came in the Consol Energy Center, where the Flyers have never lost; the Pens moved there in October 2010.
The Penguins will be without Sidney Crosby for the ninth straight game tonight after revealing yesterday he is suffering concussion symptoms from a Dec. 5 hit. Crosby has missed 76 of the last 84 games . . . Another former Penguin, Max Talbot will also make his return to Pittsburgh. He said he was grateful to get the Dec. 8 game against the Penguins out of the way . . . As of last night, the NHL was still reviewing Scott Hartnell's altercation near the Tampa Bay bench on Tuesday, though limited camera angles during a TV timeout could limited discipline to fines and/or warnings.