The chorus of deep-throated boos for years rained down from the rafters every time Jaromir Jagr touched the puck in HSBC Arena. The New York Rangers winger is an easy target for Sabres fans because he's everything Buffalo is not. He's big, blessed with ungodly talent, filthy rich, a proven winner.
Why the locals despise him so much is not entirely clear. Jagr never flipped off the fans like Bryan Cox did, never ripped the city like Willis McGahee did, never dominated a series against the Sabres like Bernie Parent did. Jagr never did anything to the Sabres that would warrant endless abuse.
Could it be jealousy? Maybe.
It appears his bigger crime is one of dispassion, which carries a lifetime sentence in Buffalo even for visiting players. Jagr's $8.3 million salary this season was more than the combined salaries of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, his production not even close. Sabres fans could never stomach watching someone with such an abundance of skill and such a shortage of commitment, especially for that much dough.
Despise him if you must, but it will not change the fact that the Rangers' success and failure in the second round against the Sabres begins and ends with their best player. And that's definitely Jagr. He will have an effect on the series one way or another. If the Sabres don't find a way to harness him, they can forget about the conference finals, forget about the Stanley Cup.
At 35, Jagr is the best player in the league when he's sufficiently motivated. The last four words are the most important part of the previous sentence because with him it's hardly been a given throughout his career. Quick, what do you remember about his two-plus seasons in Washington?
The Sabres can expect him playing at full capacity in the postseason. His longest stretch without recording a point this season was three games, and it happened only once. He had six goals and 15 points while the Rangers won eight of their final 11 games to solidify their playoff spot. He had two goals, seven points and was plus-6 in the sweep over the Atlanta Thrashers. He had four assists in Game Three, all but finishing Atlanta.
Yes, the man fans love to hate can still play.
He posted his 15th consecutive 30-goal season and finished with 96 points this season, but it was considered a quiet year by his standards. He stayed mostly in the NHL's backdrop because he wasn't among its leading scorers and didn't play for one of its best teams. But like their best player, the Rangers were better than they appeared.
Jagr has been playing alongside center Michael Nylander and opposite Marcel Hossa on the Blueshirts' top line. They should expect to see plenty of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, the Sabres' top defensive pairing, throughout the second round. Nylander is no slouch, but Jagr is the reason that line deserves special attention.
The Sabres' best chance of containing him remains the same. The Sabres will be looking to play an up-tempo, puck-possession style for at least the first two games at home. Simply, if they have the puck, Jagr cannot.
And all will remain quiet in Buffalo.