In the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, Pittsburgh is paired with Boston. The teams have some history, but a lot of it happened in another era. Just ask Jaromir Jagr.
In 1991, the Penguins beat the Bruins in the Wales Conference championship on their way to Pittsburgh’s first Stanley Cup title. Cam Neely played in that series. Today he’s the Bruins’ team president. So did Mario Lemieux. Today he’s co-owner of the Penguins. A 19-year-old rookie named Jagr played in the series, too. Today he’s still a player. But this time around, the forward is a Bruin, and he’s 41.
Jagr’s teammate Matt Bartkowski, grew up in Pittsburgh. He’s 24.
“It’s awesome because I looked up to him when I played,” Bartkowski said after a team practice this week. “I didn’t really try and model my game after him because I’m a defenseman and he’s unbelievable, but it’s pretty cool to be able to play with him now.”
Jagr Then And Now
Nicole Emo is a lifelong Bruins fan, but she still remembers her poster of Jagr in a Penguins uniform.
“I liked him when I was younger. He was probably one of the first players that was on my wall,” Emo said.
On Wednesday, Emo came to watch Boston practice in Wilmington, Mass. She says Jagr the Bruin is a different player.
“He’s definitely a little bit slower. I think he has a hard time kind of keeping up with the rest of the guys,” she said with a chuckle.
Boston acquired Jagr from Dallas in early April. After his first practice with the team, in a video recorded by the Boston Globe, he explained how he can help the Bruins’ younger players like Bartkowski and fellow rookie Torey Krug.
“No matter how old you are, you can always learn. And if somebody thinks he knows everything when he’s 25, he’s lying to himself or he’s dumb. So, you can always learn, and I’m here to teach the guys and tell them what I had to go through and [make] their hockey life easier.”
Pittsburgh Is Crosby’s Town
“What the Penguin fans expect from Sidney Crosby is two game-winning goals per game,” said Gene Collier, who’s been a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 30 years. Even though the Lemeiux-Jagr era produced two Stanley Cups, he believes Crosby’s tenure has Penguins fans flying even higher.
“Sid has more fans and more multi-generational fans and more intense fans,” Collier said.
And Crosby has more than a little help. Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin was the 2012 league MVP. The pair guided the Penguins to the Cup in 2009. Malkin’s led the league in points twice, but just about everyone agrees Crosby is tops in the NHL, even the guys in the Boston locker room.
“Yeah, it’s exciting we’re going to be up against the best player in the world,” said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. “They’ve been playing very well all year and we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”
Bad Blood, New And Old
It’s easy for former Stanley Cup winners to sound relaxed before a big series. Goalie Tim Thomas is gone, but the Bruins’ core from their 2011 title run is mostly intact. And that group remembers when Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke delivered a blind-side hit to Boston’s Marc Savard in 2010. Savard missed two months with a concussion and hasn’t played since another concussion the following year. Cooke is still with the Penguins. Marchand says the Bruins have moved on.
“It’s a long time ago,” Marchand said. “There’s much bigger things at stake right now than that hit. It’s not even in our minds right now.”
But Marchand looks as though he’s thinking more than he’s saying, or it could just be that bad blood between good teams is par for the rink. Those early ’90s squads shared their own ugly moments, but in an odd twist, eight players from the ’91 Penguins would later play for Boston. But that – with all due respect to the 41-year-old who’s presumably last crossover – is ancient history.
Gene Collier is among those looking forward to the new Bruins-Penguins chapter.
“There are more good players coming over the boards on both these teams than I’ve seen in a long time, so I’m really looking forward to it, just the overall urgency and competitiveness of it. It’ll be exciting to see both these teams on the ice.”
And here a couple of things you can count on: The team that advances to the Stanley Cup finals will be wearing black and gold. And there will be some new trivia questions. They’ll all have the same answer: Jaromir Jagr.
Follow Doug Tribou on Twitter: @DougTribou