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Gaborik's hot start proving naysayers wrong

by Larry Wigge
Even before the drop of the first puck of the 2008-09 season, there were countless rumors that something was going to happen with multi-talented forward Marian Gaborik after he turned down a new contract offer from the Minnesota Wild and went into the final season of his deal.

The slick-skating Slovakian, arguably the fastest player in the NHL, showed the hockey world how good he could be when he scored 42 goals in the 2007-08 season after reaching the 30-goal mark four times in his first six seasons despite missing game after game due to groin and abdominal injuries.

But in spite of the 42 goals, there was a "buyer beware" sign on Gaborik's forehead when he started last season. The warnings grew stronger after he was injured in just the second regular-season game.

After consulting with Wild doctors, Gaborik returned for four more games in December. It was after a second setback that Gaborik visited Dr. Marc Philippon of Vail, Colo., which resulted in the diagnosis that his hip was the real problem, not the groin or abdomen -- and surgery was required.

Skepticism followed whenever the 27-year-old forward said he thought he was getting closer to a return. Even though he spoke of quiet optimism, he had this injury-plagued career -- that numbered 165 games missed due to injury over his eight-year career.

Even after returning to play in 11 games in March and April -- scoring 10 goals, including two game-winners in the process -- Gaborik was looked at as the kid who cried wolf too many times. Except when he became a free agent July 1 and one day later the New York Rangers announced they had cleared Gaborik physically and signed him to a whopping five-year, $37.5 million deal.

Now, three months later, there still may be skeptics about whether Gaborik can finish the season as strong as he's started it. But no one denies what they've seen in a start that has seen Gaborik reach 6 goals and 4 assists in seven games entering this weekend.

A talent like Gaborik in the hands of a Stanley Cup-winning coach like John Tortorella and a team that is faster than any Rangers group we've seen in more than a decade has everyone talking about the player taken third in the 2000 Entry Draft behind only Rick DiPietro and Dany Heatley.

Of all the high-priced pickups by the Rangers over the years, this one is the closest to the acquisition of Mark Messier from Edmonton in 1991. In fact, Gaborik is the first Ranger to post points in his first seven games since Messier did it in 1993-94.

After seeing Gaborik contribute a goal and 2 assists in a 7-2 victory against Toronto Oct. 12, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said: "There are only a handful of guys in the League that when they get the puck I get nervous, and Marian Gaborik is one of them. He's always had electric talent."

Now, the rest of the NHL is on alert: Beware of Marian Gaborik.

Full-pronged effort -- Danny Briere says confidence exudes in the Flyers' locker room for one reason -- Chris Pronger.

"You see that guy on the other side of the room," Briere said. "He can do the things that it normally takes two or three guys to do. And based on what Chris Pronger can do for us, how can you not get excited?"

A Wing and a prayer? Nah -- Following a 6-2 setback to Buffalo on Oct. 13 that dropped the Red Wings to 2-3-0, coach Mike Babcock lit a fire under his troops.

"I thought we were slow (against the Sabres)," Babcock said. "Why are you slow? We were slow because you hesitate. You're slow because you don't know the system maybe and you're thinking. You're slow because you're not skating hard enough.

"So we basically did a system review and had them skate very hard."

Back to Wings hockey. No prayers needed.

Ahead 5-0 ... then down 6-5 -- New Flames coach Brent Sutter is flexible. But not that flexible.

"Everyone talks about goals, goals, goals," Sutter said after surrendering that 5-0 lead and losing in overtime to Chicago on Oct. 12. “Well, we scored five goals in Chicago and lost 6-5."

Adding defense is the thread that ties good teams from bad, Sutter added, "Forming new habits isn't always an easy task."

The tough get tougher -- I've always loved those mental toughness anecdotes from Pat Quinn over the years when he coached in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. Like the one the new Edmonton Oilers coach told his youngsters following a 6-1 win against Nashville on Oct. 12.

"It's like the old pool hustler -- it's not what you make, it's what you save," Quinn said. "When you're leaving ducks out there for the other guy to ram home, Fast Eddie is going to reach in your pocket."

That's all part of the fast start the Oilers are having under Quinn.

Something to prove -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau sees even more fire in the eyes of Alex Ovechkin and his young Washington teammates after being bounced from the playoffs in a tough seven-game series by Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.

"I see an anger, an anger that has made Alex and the rest more determined to win it all," said Boudreau.

Finding a way to get closer -- Everyone marveled last season at how Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray got his young team to play so disciplined. Now, GM Dean Lombardi added proven winners Ryan Smyth up front and Rob Scuderi on defense and four straight wins doesn't seem so outrageous. Neither does the Kings' first playoff berth since 2003.

Smyth, obtained from Colorado for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing and a 2010 fifth-round draft choice, has found life in L.A. lovely -- and life on the ice with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams wonderful.

Said Smyth: "In previous years, from talking to the guys, they would have lost the close games ... and now we're winning, finding ways to win those close games. That's something to build on."

A full-day's pay -- The Boston Bruins roared from the starting gate last season. So what's wrong this season?

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli: "A good first period isn't enough. That's like putting in a six-hour day, which means you are not putting in a full day's work, in my mind."

Looking for the phoenix in Phoenix -- Coyotes captain Shane Doan feels for the Arizona fans who have stuck with the team he has known since moving from Winnipeg with the Jets after the 1995-96 season.

"Losing doesn't sell anywhere," Doan said. "If you go seven years without making the playoffs, it's going to challenge any fan base. That's what we've done."

Hurricane warning -- Tuomo Ruutu always has had a nasty side to the way he plays. Last season, he had a career-high 26 goals. This season, he reported to training camp wearing a half shield and vowed to have his best year ever.

"Too many Joe Corvo slap shots whistling by my ear," Ruutu said, pointing to how smart he'd become over the summer. "Now, I'm more confident going to the net."

And, oh, yeah, Corvo adds this could be his first 20-goal season. So, look out below in front of opposition nets.

Beware of gaudy preseason records -- The Vancouver Canucks cruised through the preseason at 7-0-2. So what gives with their 2-3-0 start, in which the team trailed by three goals often early on?

"You can't come to the rink thinking, 'Oh my God, we can't replace Danny (Sedin, lost for 4-6 weeks with a broken leg) or Sammy (Salo, lost for four weeks with a knee injury),'" observed veteran center Ryan Johnson. "Sure, it will be hard to replace those guys. But we've got other players who can help."

Things that make you go hmm ... -- We keep seeing opponents shooting at Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's glove, thinking they have found a flaw in the puckstopper's game. Methinks they'd better try again, since Fleury's 4-1 victory against Ottawa on Oct. 12 gave him a 19-2-3 record in his last 24 regular-season decisions. ... For all those who have wondered how the Penguins can afford to pay centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal big dollars, particular third-line center Staal, coach Dan Bylsma has put Staal on left wing more than once in offensive situations with Malkin -- and it worked for goals in consecutive games last week. ... Zach Parise is more than just a hard-working and determined young man. The one-on-one skill of this Devil is evident every time he gets in the shootout. Parise's goal against Jose Theodore helped New Jersey beat Washington, 3-2, in the shootout Oct. 12 -- raising his career shootout record to an incredible 18-for-38. ... Tampa Bay power forward Ryan Malone is quite a weapon against Southeast Division foes. He scored the game-winning goal in consecutive victories over Southeast opponents Carolina and Florida, Oct. 10 and 12, respectively. In fact, all five of his goals this season have come against division rivals. ... Want to know the true meaning of transition and why I'm always harping on it? Look no further than Malone's goal against Florida's Tomas Vokoun, which started with Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki stopping Panthers forward David Booth on a breakaway with the score tied, 2-2. Lightning center Steven Stamkos grabbed the rebound out of his own goal crease and raced down the ice, catching Florida changing lines. Stamkos' 20-footer from right wing lay in the goal crease for Malone to tap home. ... Signing Niittymaki seems to have been a smart move by Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton. After all, Niittymaki, who spent his first five NHL seasons with Philadelphia, ran his impeccable career record against Southeast Division clubs to 30-10-4 with that win over Florida. Only Chris Osgood (.789) and Evgeni Nabokov (.757) have done better against Southeast teams than Niittymaki. Oh, by the way, the only Southeast club Niittymaki had struggled against was the Lightning (1-4-0 in five games).

Banner means ... -- To Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, raising the Stanley Cup banner to the rafters at Mellon Arena means, "It represents the identity that the players gained by learning to come to work hard every night." ... The confidence carried over to this season by Chicago forward Patrick Sharp and defenseman Cam Barker is remarkable. Sharp had a goal and an assist in the Blackhawks' 4-3 defeat of Edmonton on Oct. 14 to stretch his career-high points streak to six games. Barker also had a goal, his second of the season. Barker's skill on the point on the power play has helped him displace a more expensive Brian Campbell with the man advantage. ... One thing the Blackhawks haven't figured out is how to make a penalty shot at home. Sharp's effort against former teammate Nikolai Khabibulin in that game against Edmonton stretched a streak of futility to 1987 since the last Hawk -- Troy Murray -- scored on a penalty shot at home. ... We marveled at the contributions of young defensemen Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian last season. This season, take a look at Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy of the Rangers. All are poised beyond their years. ... Travis Moen always has been that Mr. Fix-it type of player. He is again in Montreal, it seems. Put him on the No. 1 line in Montreal in place of Michael Cammalleri and he perks up Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Put him with Tomas Plekanec, and voila! What a valuable role player.

A numbers game -- Our friends at Elias Sports Bureau point out how most shootouts, since the game inside the game was added in 2005, are won by the visiting team (325-313). Pittsburgh, in fact, has won 14 of its last 19 road shootouts following a 3-2 win in extra shots over Carolina on Oct. 14. ... It only was the sixth game of the season, but the Maple Leafs' sixth loss, to the New York Rangers on Oct. 12, tied six-game winless streaks to start the 1945-46 and 1982-83 seasons and is one short of matching a seven-game drought to start the 1990-91 campaign. ... When Buffalo's Ryan Miller stopped Detroit's Valterri Filppula on a penalty shot late in the second period of a 6-2 triumph Oct. 13, it was the ninth time in 10 penalty shots against him that he has stopped. Among the 38 goaltenders in NHL history who have faced at least eight penalty shots, only Dallas' Marty Turco (one goal in 13 attempts) and former New York Rangers netminder Mike Richter (one goal in 11 attempts) have been more successful than Miller. ... That eight-year, $62.4 million contract wasn't expected to go to the head of Columbus captain Rick Nash. In fact, in his first five games this season, the 25-year-old star forward's 2 assists in a 2-1 victory against Calgary on Oct. 13 gave him seven helpers already this season -- stretching his streak of multi-point games to four. That is a career-high for assists in October in one season. Oddly, he netted just one assist in 10 October games last season. ... When Brett Clark and Darcy Tucker struck for power-play goals in a 4-1 triumph at Toronto on Oct. 13, it represented the sixth consecutive game Colorado had scored with the man advantage. It also was the first time the Avs had scored power-play goals that often since a seven-game streak in March 2007 -- and it was their longest such streak to begin a season since 1997-98, when Colorado scored power-play goals in each of its first nine games. ... Anaheim's Corey Perry predicted a big start for himself this season -- and he's kept his word, with 4 goals in six games, including 2 goals in the first period of a 3-2 win against Minnesota on Oct. 14. It was the first time in Perry's four seasons with the Ducks that he had two goals in the first period.

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