Marian Gaborik was an unstoppable force last season, his first with the New York Rangers. He scored 42 goals in 76 games, carrying a team that was starved for offense to within one victory of a playoff berth.
It's been the complete opposite story this season for Gaborik and the Rangers.
The sniper has just 22 goals in 62 games and has missed 20 games with various injuries. But the Rangers have reached the postseason thanks to a healthy dose of secondary scoring that was sorely lacking a season ago.
The Rangers have gone from No. 19 in goals last season to No. 14 this season despite their undisputed offensive leader having a down year. Gaborik's mostly ineffective season didn't hurt the Rangers during the regular season, but will he have to be at his best for the Rangers to go deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
"Of course, of course," said Rangers forward Vinny Prospal, who has spent a lot of time on a line with Gaborik the past two seasons. "He knows we count on him to score a lot of goals. And it's tough on him, because he wants to score as well. He's got added pressure from himself and the team. He's trying, he's trying."
The biggest problem for Gaborik hasn't been the lack of scoring, as much as the lack of consistent scoring against the League's better teams. He has scored 10 of his 22 goals in three games and 13 of his 22 goals against non-playoff teams. Those stats do not change the importance of Gaborik scoring for the Rangers, who are 10-4 when he notches a goal and merely a .500 team when he doesn't; but they do suggest how much better the Rangers could be if he does get hot.
Last season, Gaborik never went more than five games without a goal. This season, Gaborik had three stretches of at least seven games where he failed to score, including a nine-game drought to finish the regular season.
Coach John Tortorella benched Gaborik for most of the third period during a 3-0 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday, but the coach believes his superstar isn't letting the scoring drought affect other aspects of his game.
But he wouldn't mind a couple of pucks hitting the back of the net, either.
"I think we need to get some goals out of him," Tortorella said. "He's moving his legs. I think he defended pretty well away from the puck. His legs are beginning to move more consistently. If that keeps growing, I think he'll help us along the way."
Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with Marian Hossa having a very similar season to the one Gaborik had in 2010-11. Hossa missed 22 games due to shoulder surgery -- Gaborik missed 12 with a separated shoulder this season -- and finished with 24 goals in 57 games.
In the playoffs, Hossa wasn't at his best, scoring a mere 3 goals in 22 games. But the Blackhawks had depth that could make up for it with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp.
That's a luxury the Rangers don't have. With 23-goal scorer Ryan Callahan out indefinitely with a fractured leg, the Rangers' three leading scorers aside from Gaborik are Brandon Dubinsky (24 goals), Derek Stepan (21 goals) and Brian Boyle (21 goals).
But Prospal feels as long as Gaborik is at 100 percent for the playoffs, he can return to form and carry the Rangers deep into the postseason.
"The biggest difference between him last year and him this year is that he has been through some injuries," Prospal said. "That affects everyone. I'll give you an example; Milan Lucic went through the same thing last year. He couldn't score last year. He had under 10 goals (9). Now he's got 30.
"I'm pretty sure (Gaborik)'s going to find his game again, because we need his goals."
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