NEW YORK – Last year Marian Gaborik was exiled from the New York Rangers and suffered through his worst stretch as a player since joining the league in 2000. Since March 6, as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, Gaborik is not only the leading goal scorer in the playoffs but poised to help his team to its second Stanley Cup in three years and what would be his first.
“It feels great to be in finals,” he said of making it to the ultimate round of NHL playoff hockey. “It's been a long time coming. When you get older, you maybe appreciate it that (much) more. I’m grateful to play my first final. It makes it a little more special to play against the Rangers.”
For the Slovak native to reach the finals against his former team that he scored 120 regular and postseason goals is extra motivation. Despite two 40+ goal seasons with the Blueshirts, Gaborik found himself on the outside looking in when it came to then head coach John Tortorella’s defence first, shot blocking system. In his final half season with the Rangers in 2013, Gaborik was benched on several occasions and earned the public ire of his coach.
Acquired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a six-player trade, Gaborik never really found his stride while battling injuries. His performance seemed a distant memory of the elite forward he’d been since his second season in the NHL. At the trade deadline, Columbus shipped Gaborik to the Kings who were looking for scoring depth heading into the playoffs.
“I think Gabby coming in at the deadline gave us an extra weapon that we needed, didn't necessarily have in the past,” assistant captain Anze Kopitar said.
For Gaborik the trade was bringing him to his third team in less than two seasons. Given his experience in New York and inability to fit in with the Blue Jackets, he wanted to do the right things in coming to Los Angeles.
“When you're coming to a team that has won and been contender for the past few years, you want to make sure you fit in, buy into the system, try and contribute.” Gaborik said of his thinking. “That was my focus. When I got traded, I wanted to fit in in terms of on the ice and off the ice. This team has been together for couple years here. 90 per cent of those guys won Cup two years ago.”
The trade came when the Kings began a three game road trip through Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary. He recalls that time as a good opportunity to get to know his teammates better off the ice.
Mike Richards took him around, got him familiar with things and the team embraced their new goal scorer. This integration into the team was important for Gaborik and let him know that he was a welcome member and pivotal asset on a contending team.
“(Richards), Kopy (Kopitar), Willie (Mitchell), those guys really helped me out,” Gaborik said. “You could tell that this team has a great locker room. Without that I don’t think they would be able to be a winning team.”
With that he never looked back, scoring five goals and 16 points in 19 regular season games and then coming alive in the postseason. Both his 13 goals and 20 points are personal playoff bests. But perhaps it is testament to the depth of the team that Gaborik is one of at least four Kings players who can be considered Conn Smythe contenders.
“I think he fit really well,” Kopitar said. “For Gabby to come in our room, I think he felt comfortable pretty quick. That's obviously a big thing and a big reason why he's feeling comfortable on the ice, too.”
All that stands between the Kings and the Stanley Cup is one more win. Even Gaborik has learned the lingo of the postseason, acknowledging nothing is done and the fourth win is the hardest to get.
If Los Angeles does prevail, Gaborik will join his friends Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa in bringing home the Cup. Ironically, the trio lives on the same street in Trencin, Slovakia.
When Hossa won it in 2010 and 2013 and Chara won it in 2011, Gaborik has had to endure their Cup local celebrations, but now could be priming for one of his own.
“I went to all of those parties,” he said. “That maybe gives you that extra motivation to see those guys winning the Cup. I didn't touch it, by the way. I was very happy for them. That gives you that extra motivation, seeing guys living on the same street, to have them win it, give you extra jolt, extra motivation to be right with that group.”