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января 2000 года.
Volatile mix: Can Jagr, Kovalev co-exist on the same line?
The prospect of Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev storming up the ice together is enough to make any opponent cringe.
Trouble is, it might have precisely the same effect on the Penguins.
Kovalev skated at center on the top forward line between Jagr and Martin Straka during practice yesterday at America West Arena. And, although Coach Herb Brooks wasn't promising that unit will remain intact when the Penguins meet the Phoenix Coyotes tomorrow night, he did allow that, "If everything works, those are some tremendous athletes, so it could be 'Oh, wow.' "
The reaction also could dissolve into the "oh, no" variety, judging from immediate reaction to the switch yesterday. Neither Jagr nor Kovalev seemed particularly giddy about it.
"We'll see how it goes," Kovalev said. "I really don't want to say anything because if I say it's going to go good and it goes bad, everyone will say 'Why didn't it go good?' "
"We've got to do something," Jagr said. "The first line isn't playing very well. The second line isn't playing very well. It's time to change. Obviously, this is the coach's decision. And if it doesn't work, we'll do something else."
Jagr and Kovalev have been on the same line before, of course, including a few shifts in the Penguins' 6-2 loss Saturday night in Philadelphia. But they haven't done so with any regularity since Kovalev was acquired from the New York Rangers in a November 1998 trade.
And that's no accident. Both players rank among the game's great talents, and both like to have the puck at all corners of the rink. That tends to make for a volatile mix in hockey.
Straka couldn't stifle a laugh when asked if there would be enough pucks for all three players.
"Not for me," he replied, grinning. "I'm not going to touch the puck, anyway. Hopefully, those two are going to decide before the game who's going to handle the puck."
Jagr bristled, however, when asked a similar question.
"It doesn't matter to me," he said. "I'm not keeping the puck. I'm passing. It's not me. I can play with anybody. For him, it's going to be a change in his game that's going to help him a lot."
By that, Jagr was suggesting strongly that Kovalev should pass the puck more often.
"He's got so much talent, so much skill," Jagr said. "But I think for his good and for the team's good, he's got to change his style of hockey. He's got the best moves one-on-one, but sometimes you've got to change up, make the pass instead of trying to beat the guy one-on-one all the time. Too bad Mario's not here, because he would learn a lot of things from him."
In the 1996-97 season, Mario Lemieux's last in the NHL, he, Jagr and Ron Francis formed a Super Line that was the buzz of the league, giving the Penguins a three-way punch so potent that no opponent could focus too much on any one of them.
But that sort of strategy didn't seem to be foremost on Brooks' mind yesterday. Rather, he seemed to be more interested to see how Kovalev functions at center, a position at which the Penguins have struggled to get consistent production this season. Jan Hrdina, who has spent most of the season as the No. 1 center, has eight goals and 12 assists in 28 games and was skating with the third line yesterday.
"Our big thing is depth up the middle," Brooks said. "All the great teams in the league are strong at center, have two or three strong guys there. We'd like to build four solid centers and go from there."
Kovalev has played center infrequently throughout his career, and he noted yesterday that he was plenty comfortable there while helping the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994. But it doubtless will be difficult for him to readjust, particularly since the center's primary role is that of playmaker.
"The onus is always on the center to create the harmony, to move the puck and get the line going," Brooks said. "That's not just Kovy. That's all centers, anytime, anyplace."
Kovalev seemed to grasp that.
"I'm hoping as a center that I can give some room to Yags," he said. "If I get some attention, that will give Yags some room to get open and shoot the puck, and it will give Marty room to skate. It'll be a little bit different for Phoenix to see all three of us. If they're thinking 'Kovalev likes to carry the puck,' I know that all three of us can do that. I hope it works."
For what it's worth, Brooks liked what he saw of the new line after a day of practice.
"I thought it showed some good things," he said. "The only problems I saw here were first-time problems. But those three can do pretty much anything they want, and we already know that. Whether we go ahead with this depends on if we feel it creates the necessary chemistry."
That's a big if.
"It'll be very interesting to see," defenseman Jiri Slegr said. "Those are basically the three best players on our team. I hope they can find a way to do it together."
"Those two guys are scary," Straka said of Jagr and Kovalev. "But you
never know if they're going to play well together. That's what we're going
to find out."
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