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Nearly 44, Jagr keeps turning back the clock

Jaromir Jagr saw the small group of reporters waiting by his locker after the Florida Panthers’ pregame workout early Tuesday afternoon. He took off his skates, stood to greet the members of the Fourth Estate, then smiled and changed things up.

“Sorry guys,” Jagr said. “I’m too old. Gotta sit down.”

He let out a hearty laugh and a big smile that belied a 43-year-old. After all this time, Jagr is playful and enjoying every minute of one of the remarkable stories in the NHL this season. He has 14 goals and the Panthers have won 10 straight games after dumping the Sabres, 5-1, in First Niagara Center to continue their rise atop the Atlantic Division.

The Panthers have terrific goaltending in Roberto Luongo, who is among a strong cadre of veterans the likes of which the Sabres simply don’t have. And they’ve got plenty of top draft picks.

But it really comes back to Jagr, the ageless one. His rookie year for the Pittsburgh Penguins was 1990-91, when he was 18. How long ago was that? It was the year before Pat LaFontaine was traded to the Sabres. A dozen Panthers weren’t even born.

“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” Jagr said. “They’re helping me the way they skate and work and I’m trying to help them with my experience. I love the game. I don’t want to be embarrassed out there and that’s why I’m trying to work hard. I don’t want to be the guy to play bad and make my linemates look bad. Some games that happens and I apologize.”

There’s been pretty much nothing wrong with Jagr so far. He opened the scoring Tuesday with a sizzling one-timer off a Jonathan Huberdeau pass that burned Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark. Just like he would have done in 2005. Or 1995.

It was Jagr’s 45th career goal against the Sabres, snapping a tie with longtime Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson for the most by a Buffalo opponent.

“When you pass it to him, he’s going to have a good finish,” said Huberdeau. “You can say it’s hard to believe that a guy 43 is playing that great. But knowing him, it’s not hard to believe.”

“He’s almost 44. We can say an almost-44-year-old,” said a laughing Brian Campbell, the former Sabre who is one of the vets anchoring the Florida kiddie corps. “I really enjoy ‘Jags.’ I enjoy him around the rink. We have some good laughs, always joking around. But he puts the work in. I’m not sure how he does it.”

Jagr has 736 career goals (five behind Brett Hull) and 1,831 points (19 behind Gordie Howe). He’s fourth all-time in both categories. That’s legend stuff. And remember, he was gone to the KHL for three years.

Jagr plays on a line with center Alexander Barkov (2nd overall, 2013) and Huberdeau (3rd overall, 2011). The Florida lineup also includes defenseman Aaron Ekblad (1st overall, 2014), who was taken one spot before the Sabres grabbed Sam Reinhart. Campbell, Luongo and defenseman Willie Mitchell, a Stanley Cup winner with the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, are among the veteran anchors.

The Panthers are just flat-out fun to watch. And their own fans are figuring that out too.

When the Sabres won at Florida in November, there might have been 5,000 people in the BB&T Center in Sunrise. It was the worst crowd I had ever seen for an NHL game and it was the norm the first 2½ months of the season.

Things changed on the Panthers’ record-setting 6-0 homestand that ended Sunday. There were sellouts against Montreal (19,822) and the New York Rangers (20,289), perhaps bloated by holiday snowbirds.

More impactful in this view was a crowd of 16,902 on a Sunday night against Columbus and the 15,426 that attended the 2-1 win against Minnesota three nights ago. Pretty much all Panthers fans.

“You needed to sell something,” Jagr said. “It doesn’t always work to promise the fans we’re going to make the playoffs because we’ve got a good young team. They don’t buy it much. Even in the middle of the season, the streak has helped us a lot. The team can say, “See, we didn’t lie. There’s something special there. They can beat even the top teams in the league.’ “

One issue was constant chatter about a move to Quebec or somewhere else. That was put to rest last month when Broward County approved an $86 million aid package. The Panthers are going nowhere. Hockey in South Florida is no longer in doubt off the ice and is suddenly becoming hip on it again for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since its trip to the 1996 Stanley Cup final.

“The last six weeks have been real good for our franchise,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “The way the winning streak has gone, the way the team has played, being in first place right now in our division, a lot of good things have happened and there’s a good buzz down there.”

Jagr sparks plenty of that excitement and he even got the voters fired up enough for him to be named Atlantic Division captain for the 3-on-3 tournament that will be this year’s All-Star Game. One issue: Jagr told folks on Twitter not to vote for him. He’s an old man, remember?

“I love to work on my game but there’s so many games you don’t really have many practices to work at it,” he said. “You go to the gym and kind of get ready for the final 25-30 games of the season. They’re crucial games. You have to be strong. So I always took the week to get ready. Some people will say, “Oh, why don’t you do it at the All-Star Game?’ But there’s so much stuff going on, it’s tough to do.”

Jagr laughed again. At his age, on this team, you’d be having the time of your life too.

“We’re just lucky to have him around us,” Huberdeau said. “We’ve learned so much from him and he’s such a good player. He’s leading the team in points. And he’s older than everybody.”