The local newspaper headlines foretold a championship: "Gift of Gabby," one read. "Great Grab," read another.
With his slick skating, soft hands, and deft scorer's touch, Marian Gaborik seemed like the man who could deliver the Stanley Cup to the team he'd just joined. The year was 2009 and that team was the New York Rangers. In some respects, Gaborik lived up to at least part of his billing. He scored 40 goals for them twice and even potted seven game-winners in 2011-12 when the Blueshirts advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, but he ultimately left town with an unfulfilled mission.
The oft-injured Gaborik, 32, was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the April of the lockout-shortened 2013 season before he could at least help deliver New York's hoped-for title. After skating for the Jackets in a grand total of 34 games, and producing all of nine goals and 22 points, he seemed to be heading for the downside of his career when he was acquired by the Los Angeles Kings on this season's trade deadline day (March 5). Since then, he has flourished and regained his old lethal form. As his team takes its 1-0 series lead into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night in L.A. (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), he leads the NHL with 12 postseason goals. But the series is even more personal for Gaborik, who on Monday will return to Madison Square Garden, the building where he was often feted, sometimes scorned, and ultimately cast aside.
"It will be special for me because it is my first time playing for the Stanley Cup," he says. "I can't say if it will be any different because it's New York. I have a new home now."
The Kings players have welcomed Gaborik, whose skill set filled a void on a defensive team that generated most of its offense from counter-attacks and occasional bursts of skill from forwards Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty. Gaborik gave L.A. a pure goal scorer, and expanded the kind of game it was able to play when situations called for different approaches. In their fast-paced Western final series against Chicago, the Kings matched the Blackhawks rush for rush at a rate that might have sunk the 2012 Kings, who won the Stanley Cup by slowing games down to half speed.
"Marian has done a lot for our confidence as an offensive team," says Kings forward Mike Richards. "We've always been a good team on our own side of the puck, but with Marian, we're a lot better offensively."
The Kings picked up Gaborik at a time when some elite acquisitions panned out (the Rangers' Martin St. Louis) and others produced mixed results (Montreal's Thomas Vanek). One by one, the Kings' leadership group, including Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, took Gaborik out for meals and chats, immersions both personal and professional, on a team that felt it was still a Cup contender.
"We knew we were getting a great goal scorer," says Richards. "We wanted to make him feel like he could be himself here and fit in because we needed him at his best."
That made life easier for Gaborik, a creative player who was coming to a team known for structure. "His acclimation, being part of this group, is such a tribute to the guys in the room who embraced him the right way," says Kings GM Dean Lombardi. "By virtue of that, it impresses upon him, 'Hey, this is the way we play here. Certain things have to be done. Now go where few players can.'"
Gaborik has shown signs of that ability his whole career, ever since Minnesota made him the third overall pick in the 2000 entry draft. He scored 30 or more goals five times in seven full seasons with the Wild before signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Rangers as a free agent in 2009. He'd also won the fastest-skater competition at the All-Star Game in 2003 and was named the game's MVP in 2012.
"He's always been a gamebreaking kind of player," says Carter. "He breaks down defenses with his speed. And he's got that type of skill where if other teams are packing it in, trapping, whatever, he can score goals anyway. He can overcome that. He's a guy you look to score when you're team isn't scoring."
Gaborik's days as a Ranger were certainly mixed. Though injuries (hip, knee) nagged him, he did put up some good numbers, but his playing style didn't necessarily jibe with the rigorous demands of head coach John Tortorella, who expected everyone on his bench to hit, defend and block shots with equal vigilance, even though his smallish roster was better suited for an up-tempo, attacking style that suited Gaborik's skills. What's more, Tortorella sometimes benched Gaborik for portions of games and was publicly critical of his play when he felt it was warranted.
"You couldn't really make a mistake there," Gaborik recalls. He'd scored just nine times in 35 games before the Rangers shipped him to the Jackets with two minor leaguers in a six-player deal on April 3, 2013. In return, New York received forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett, and defenseman John Moore, three players who have become regulars, though Moore and Dorsett have played mostly supporting roles. But the veteran Rangers know Gaborik's game well.
"Lots of speed and lots of skills," says defenseman Dan Girardi. "You have to keep him to the outside, interrupt his speed somehow. If he gets going, he's tough to stop."
With the Kings, Gaborik amassed 16 points in 19 regular-season games and has since put up 19 points in 22 games in the playoffs, usually playing on the wing with Anze Kopitar, a forward who has become one of the best two-way players in the league. It was a balancing act for both Gaborik and his teammates to play within coach Darryl Sutter's system and yet not lose sight of what they do well. During the regular season, the Kings allowed just 174 goals, the fewest of any team in the league, but scored only 206. To Sutter's credit, he has opened up his team's game at times during the playoffs. Defenseman other than Drew Doughty are joining rushes and Gaborik doesn't seem constricted by defensive responsibilities.
In Game 1 on Wednesday night, he recorded five shots, but didn't get on the scoresheet against his former team. "I'm not going to lie," he said after the Kings' 3-2 win. "It was a little weird to start out with. Familiar faces. But after a while it was like playing against any other team. You're playing for the Stanley Cup. That's enough motivation."
Sounds good but his teammates don't buy it. "Probably not," says Carter. "Deep down inside, this one is pretty special to him. He wants it really bad."