NEW YORK – He scored four, but it was the first goal that was the most important for Marian Gaborik(notes). It was the snowflake that started the snowball, a snowball the New York Rangers so desperately need to keep rolling now.
The pass came across the ice from Sean Avery(notes) midway through the first period Wednesday night, and Gaborik settled the bouncing puck on his stick, wide open on the right side of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ net. He knew goaltender Jonas Gustavsson(notes) had lost his stick, so he took his time. A left-handed shot, he went forehand, backhand, forehand. He stickhandled around Gustavsson’s outstretched left pad, stuffed the puck into the vacant net and pumped his right fist as Madison Square Garden shook.
“Big relief,” Gaborik said.
Gaborik, who led the Rangers with 42 goals last season, fifth-most in the NHL, hadn’t scored in eight games, had only three goals in his last 19 games and had been benched for parts of Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers because of his lack of production.
And now the Rangers, trying to stay in playoff position, having lost three of their past four games – starting a stretch of five games in seven nights – needed him more than ever before.
They had just announced that Brandon Dubinsky(notes), their leading scorer this season, would miss three-to-four weeks with a stress fracture in his left leg, joining Ryan Callahan(notes) (hand), Erik Christensen(notes) (knee), Alex Frolov (knee) and Vinny Prospal(notes) (knee) among the injured. (Little did they know they also would lose Ruslan Fedotenko(notes) for two-to-four weeks with a sprained left shoulder later in the game.)
So for Gaborik to snap out of his slump, to break down the dam and unleash a flood of four goals and an assist in a 7-0 blowout of the listless Leafs, it was a big relief to everyone in a blue shirt. It was the first four-goal game in the league this season, the kind of breakout performance other teams need from other unusually silent stars – the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes), the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin(notes).
“He was on fire tonight,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes) said. “I think he felt a lot of responsibility, especially when Duby went down here. A lot of key guys are missing, so we need him. He definitely stepped up. It was great to see him play tonight. The speed and the way he was shooting the puck, he looked very confident and comfortable.”
Gaborik assisted on the second goal. He tapped in a pass for the third. He fired the puck from a bad angle, and somehow it leaked through Gustavsson and barely slid across the goal line for the fifth goal (finally, getting the breaks). Then he snapped a wicked shot from the high slot through a screen – showing off his sweet, deceptive release – for the sixth goal 14:44 into the second period.
“He was definitely the fastest guy on the ice,” Avery said.
Maybe Rangers coach John Tortorella should have benched Gaborik at that point, to keep him healthy and tick him off for Thursday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes. But Lundqvist wanted more.
“I was hoping for him to get six, a new personal record,” said Lundqvist, who gave up five goals to Gaborik in a 6-3 loss at Minnesota in 2007-08, when Gaborik played for the Wild. “I guess I’m still the record, so I have to live with that.”
Oh, the Rangers can live with this.
Entering the season, the theory was that they had a chance only if Gaborik stayed healthy and productive (and Lundqvist continued his usual steady, stellar play). Only two players accounted for a higher percentage of their teams’ goals last season than Gaborik (19.2) did: the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos(notes) (23.9) and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby(notes) (20.5), who tied for the league lead in goals with 51 apiece.
For a while, that theory was debunked. Gaborik struggled with injuries, as he has so often in his career, missing 14 games, and struggled to score. But the Rangers, once famous for big-money, free-agent flops, got by offensively largely thanks to draft picks like Dubinsky, Callahan, Derek Stepan(notes), Artem Anisimov(notes) and Dan Girardi(notes) (with Lundqvist being Lundqvist, of course).
But now we’re back to the original premise. Gaborik must stay healthy and productive, or the Rangers don’t have a chance with so many others out of the lineup. General manager Glen Sather was able to add Wojtek Wolski(notes) in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes last week after Frolov went down, but it’s going to be difficult to pull off something like that again. Sather needs scoring from the free agent he signed to a five-year, $37.5 million contract July 1, 2009.
“It’s not going to be like that every night, obviously,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said after Gaborik’s four-goal outburst. “But if he assumes his role with this team, it helps us because one mistake doesn’t cost you a game. That’s the key thing with Gabby. He can help extend us a little bit. Maybe we’re 1-0. He scores a big goal, it’s 2-0. So, sure, that helps your confidence. That’s a very important role for Marian.”
The Rangers need the big goal more than the big-goal totals. Gaborik has three hat tricks this season, but that means he has scored 10 of his goals in three games and only five more goals in his other 31 outings. And he’s not going to be playing the Leafs every night.
“I need to build on this and be more consistent,” Gaborik said. “There’s always pressure, obviously. You put pressure on yourself as well. That’s just been throughout my whole career. That’s just how it is.
“So I need to live up to it.”