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Progress? Marian Gaborik's back at practice with Minnesota Wild @NHLdotcom

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Marian Gaborik wasn't going to blend seamlessly back with the Minnesota Wild, not with his absence at 24 games and counting and his speedy legs still below full strength.

The lime-green jersey Gaborik wore for Tuesday's practice, his first with the team since he was hurt on Oct. 15, merely highlighted his eyebrow-raising return.

After eagerly but cautiously completing the hour-long, off-day workout with his teammates at Xcel Energy Center, Gaborik was officially closer to rejoining the first line and giving the Wild the scoring threat they clearly need.

"It's always good to get out there and skate with people around," said Gaborik, who is recovering from an unspecified lower-body injury. Judging by the way he moved around during practice - admittedly not at 100 per cent - and the time he's been out, it is assumed the groin muscle that cost him nearly half of the 2006-07 season is bothering him again.

The team has stopped divulging information about any player's injury beyond the general vicinity of the malady, and Gaborik smiled broadly when asked if he's fighting the same problem as in the past.

"I can't talk about that stuff," he said. "Good try, though."

The relevant question, of course, is when he'll be cleared to play again.

He has one goal and six shots on net in two games, paltry numbers buried at the bottom of the Wild's statistics with the healthy scratches and minor-league call-ups. After getting hurt during a hackysack game the players use to kill time and stay limber, Gaborik has led a lonely existence of training room treatment and solo skating sessions.

Lately, he's noticed improvement, and his request to participate Tuesday was granted by coach Jacques Lemaire.

"He looked OK. For the first day with us, he was fine," Lemaire said. "He still has a long ways to go, conditioning, but it's good that he's back."

The Wild returned centre Krys Kolanos to their AHL affiliate in Houston on Monday, creating roster space should Gaborik be ready to come off injured reserve. Lemaire said he won't play on a three-game road trip that begins Thursday against Phoenix, however, leaving a Dec. 17 home game against Calgary the next option.

Gaborik, the only player remaining from the franchise's inaugural season eight years ago, has missed a total of 80 games since the lockout ended in 2005.

"Hopefully I can gradually keep picking it up and get to the point where I can jump back into the game," Gaborik said. "I'm looking forward to that."

Gaborik is in the final year of his contract, and talks between his agent and the Wild about an extension broke off before he was hurt. He's on the trade block, but interest from other teams is obviously cool if he's not playing.

Minnesota lost 1-0 to Nashville on Saturday and 2-1 to Vancouver on Friday. Another forward, Owen Nolan, is also out with a lower-body injury. So as long as Gaborik is here, the Wild could sure use his help putting the puck in the net. Their 72 goals are tied for 11th in the 15-team Western Conference.

Defending their own zone has always been the priority under Lemaire, and they began the week only two points out of first place in the Northwest Division. Their power play is ranked second in the NHL, with goals in 25.4 per cent of their man-advantage situations. But that leaves them with only 42 even-strength scores in 26 games.

"I don't think it's an issue," centre Eric Belanger said. "Like every other team in the league, we want to score more goals. But we also want to make sure we don't give up too many. Every system is so good right now. Everybody's coming back and tightening up around the net. I mean, there's not much. You get a battle to get your goals now."

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