There he is: Jaromir Jagr strikes first to lead Panthers to victory
SUNRISE, Fla. -- After going without a point in his debut Saturday, 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr that kicked off the scoring for the Florida Panthers in their 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night.
The goal, which gave the Panthers a rare 1-0 lead at 10:24 of the first period, was the 717th goal of Jagr's career, tying him with Hall of Famer Phil Esposito for fifth place on the NHL's all-time list.
With Jagr skating toward the bench with his arms raised in celebration, it was 19-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad who offered the first congratulations to Florida's newest star.
"There were a lot of 'attaboy, Jags' and those kind of things," said Ekblad, who netted the game-winning goal. "He's obviously a great player and to slip into that position there is no mystery. He's a legend of the game, and it's pretty special to have him here."
As Florida continues its push for playoffs, Jagr's first goal couldn't have come at a better time, as early leads have become more elusive in recent weeks. In their past 10 games, the Panthers have fallen behind 1-0 eight times, posting a 4-4-2 record during that span.
"It's huge," Ekblad said. "Sometimes we struggle to get off to an early lead, and it's important to have a guy like that that can come in and score a big goal like that at a big time.
"We're pushing for a playoff spot here, and it's important to get up, stay up and crush teams when we are up."
Florida has won both games since Jagr's arrival after losing its previous four contests. The Panthers have scored nine goals in those two games while outshooting their opponents 73-37.
First impressions are always important, and Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant was quick to praise his newest weapon after the victory.
"Two games and he's played very well," Gallant said. "The line was real good again tonight, and the kids are playing well, that's what it's all about. He's having fun right now, and the team's playing well."
Finishing the night with a goal and an assist, Jagr greeted reporters post-game wearing a West Point cadet jacket, given after each victory to the team-appointed MVP. In his mind, however, his linemates -- 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov and 21-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau -- were just as deserving of the honor.
"We didn't have any practices, but they make it easy for me," Jagr said of his linemates, who combined for a goal and three assists. "We didn't have good luck yesterday. We had some scoring chances but we didn't score. I told them, 'We just gotta score next game, it's OK,' and we did that today."
In the end, the Panthers will likely need a few more MVP-worthy performances from Jagr down the home stretch as they chase down the Boston Bruins for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
His first goal as a Panther may have led to a victory, but it will take several more in the coming weeks for Jagr to reach what he believes is the only real goal.
"I don't really look right now at goals," Jagr said. "My goal is different. I came here to help this team try and make the playoffs or make it close as possible. It's like playoffs for us already. We've got 19 games to go and it's going to be exciting.
"Hopefully we can play the same way we did tonight or yesterday and see what happens."