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Almost Czech-mate

For the most part, Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina has stifled (and punished) Capitals star and countryman Jaromir Jagr.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Pavel Kubina has stayed close to Jaromir Jagr for most of the series.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

TAMPA -- Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina holds Czech Republic compatriot and Capitals superstar Jaromir Jagr in the highest regard.

Kubina calls him "one of the best forwards out there," capable of "untouchable" and "unstoppable" moves.

But that kind of respect goes only so far.

Kubina was in Jagr's face at every opportunity during the first four games of the best-of-seven NHL East quarterfinals. There was even a moment during Game 3 when Kubina mashed Jagr's face into the end boards. He also decked Jagr in that game with a check Jagr said might not have been clean but Kubina called "a good hit with my shoulder."

And in one of the most important moments of the series, Kubina agitated Jagr so much, the right wing lost his cool and mugged Kubina just enough in retaliation to get a roughing penalty.

That was part of a sequence that led to a five-on-three Lightning advantage, an overtime power-play goal and a 4-3 victory in Game 3. "If I don't play physical," Kubina said Thursday, "I wouldn't help the team too much."

Asked if the plan is to knock Jagr off his game, Kubina said, "He has so much experience and is such a smart player, it's tough to get under his skin. That's all I can say about it."

Say this for Kubina. After an up-and-down season in which he admitted he lost his confidence, he has shown flashes of what the Lightning has expected him to become since drafting him in the seventh round (179th overall) in 1996.

It is not only in the way he approaches Jagr. Kubina's overall game appears to have grown as the games have gotten more important.

He is second on the team with an average ice time of 22:48 and has played a mature, positional game. His stick check on Peter Bondra in the third period of Game 4 as the slick right wing bore down on him one-on-one in the defensive zone was smart and efficient.

"He's been very good," coach John Tortorella said. "He's brought his game up another level. He has to continue to do that."

He took a dumb penalty when he hit Washington's Steve Konowalchuk across the jaw with the shaft of his stick after the horn ended the second period of Game 3. But for the most part, Kubina, with eight penalty minutes, has walked the line between physical and illegal.

He was on the ice when Jagr assisted on Brendan Witt's goal that tied Game 3 with 2:56 left in regulation. But that play was as memorable for the picture of Jagr on the ice after being run over by Kubina.

Jagr stayed down for a couple of minutes before being helped off, though he returned in overtime.

"I didn't think it was (clean)," Jagr said of the hit. "But it's tough for the referees. There's a lot of stuff going on. I tried to score. They tried to stop me. I respect that."

"I don't think it was a dirty hit," Kubina said. "If it was, the referees would have called it."

Kubina's teammates said they have noticed his effort.

"We feed off that when we see Kuby hitting him and Jagr falling down," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "It motivates us that we have to do that to everybody."

Kubina versus Jagr is a heavyweight matchup. Jagr, 31, is 6 feet 2, 233 pounds. Kubina, 26, is 6-4, 236.

"It's a great challenge for me," Kubina said. "Before the playoffs, the coaches told me I was going to play against their top line and if I didn't get the job done, we wouldn't have a chance. They tried to build up my confidence because I didn't have it in the regular season. The organization believed in me."

"He's playing one of the best players in the world," Tortorella said. "He's been challenged, and so far, he's done a great job."

It's not all roses. Jagr had two goals and two assists in Game 2 and two assists in Game 3. And Kubina has no points. "I care about my offense, but my first point is to get the job done in our zone," he said. "We have to stop their players." It was done well in Game 4 as Jagr was a nonfactor in Tampa Bay's 3-1 victory. It is not all Kubina. Jagr plays way too much and in all situations to get an exclusive matchup. But Kubina has gotten in his licks.

So how does the player who said before the series the Capitals could not take a hit feel about tonight's Game 5 at the St. Pete Times Forum?

"We've won two games and have a chance to win the series," he said. "That's all I can say about it."

Much more important is what Kubina is doing about it.

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