When assist machine Brad Richards signed his mega-deal with the New York Rangers this past summer, he was supposed to form a beautiful partnership with sniper Marian Gaborik.
Richards would carry the puck into the offensive zone and use his next-level vision and passing ability to find Gaborik, who would score so many goals that official scorers throughout the NHL would be driven into early retirement due to the stress from the increased workload.
Instead, Gaborik and Richards were separated by coach John Tortorella after eight games in which Richards had a goal and four assists, Gaborik had four goals and one assist and the Rangers were 3-3-2. The production wasn't exactly lacking, but the chemistry wasn't there in game Nos. 6-8 as the pair combined for one assist in those three games, two of which were losses.
Through the season's first eight games, the Rangers had just 16 goals and Tortorella needed to find line combinations that worked, and that meant splitting up Richards and Gaborik.
"I think we got to know each other on the ice a little bit better, even though we haven't played a whole lot during the middle of the season. Now I know we're using a give-and-go. When I try to get the puck, I look for him, give it to him and move my legs. Now I know he's going to try to give it back, so I think that's a big difference." -- Marian Gaborik
Since Tortorella formed a line of Carl Hagelin-Richards-Gaborik for a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 17, the Rangers are 7-3-0. Richards has four goals and 10 assists; Gaborik has six goals and six assists and the rookie Hagelin has chipped in two goals and six assists.
What's working now that wasn't working in October? Gaborik believes it's the culmination of two players getting to know each other over the course of the season.
"You get comfortable with a system," Gaborik said. "I think we got to know each other on the ice a little bit better, even though we haven't played a whole lot during the middle of the season. Now I know we're using a give-and-go. When I try to get the puck, I look for him, give it to him and move my legs. Now I know he's going to try to give it back, so I think that's a big difference."
Learning each other's tendencies is undoubtedly important, but the underlying problem was both Richards and Gaborik spent their entire careers as players who needed the puck on their sticks to be effective. As a playmaker, Richards wants to have the puck in order to distribute it, while Gaborik has the speed and talent to beat defenders 1-on-1, and he too needs the puck in order to accomplish that.
There's nothing in the NHL rulebook that provides a steadfast definition of "the front of the net," but Gaborik has shown more of a willingness to get to that area this year in order to score goals. Of his 39 goals this season, as many as 20 can be considered the result of Gaborik either driving the net or getting to the slot without the puck.
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Tortorella has praised Gaborik for scoring more dirty goals this season and said his leading scorer isn't only playing well in the offensive zone without the puck.
"Yeah, but a lot of it is in the neutral zone too," Tortorella said. "It's playing without the puck in the neutral zone. Brad's been seeing the ice here better in the last little while."
Richards has been seeing the ice about as well he has all season. He finished March with seven goals and 15 assists in 17 games after posting just three goals and eight assists in his previous 22 games.
Hagelin has been playing with Richards since late-December, but said the addition of Gaborik has helped the veteran center take his game to another level.
"They didn't play together early in the season. They only had one or two games, and it's not always going to click right away," Hagelin said. "That might've been one thing. They're both playing well. They both have good speed, and Richie is really bringing his 'A' game right now. He's finding guys everywhere, and that's a key component having your center playing at his best. It makes everything else a lot easier."
Tortorella bestows most of the credit on Richards, whose resurgence has given the Rangers a deadly first line with the playoffs just around the corner.
"I think a lot of it has to do with Brad Richards' game," Tortorella said. "I think Gabby is getting used to him a little where Gabby needs to give him the puck and not always have the puck. Then you just gain some confidence. I think their puck movement, especially the guy without the puck has been very good with them."
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