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Still-maturing, now-healthy Gaborik has made big mark on Wild @NHLdotcom

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Marian Gaborik has proven to the Minnesota Wild, and every opponent they face, that the impact of his absence was not overstated.

Since returning a month ago from a nagging groin injury that kept him out for 34 games, Gaborik's presence has energized Minnesota's attack and helped push the Wild forward in the Western Conference playoff race.

He's still prone to flat performances, as coach Jacques Lemaire is never hesitant to point out, but his team's 10-0 record this season when he scores a goal is certainly not coincidental.

Minnesota went 15-18-2 without Gaborik, including the Oct. 20 game in which he was initially hurt. When the foundation of the franchise is on the ice, the Wild are 15-4-2 before into Saturday's action.

"I try not to think about it and just try to go out there and work hard and have fun," Gaborik said.

After back-to-back 30-goal seasons and his selection as the team's first all-star, a contract dispute at the beginning of the 2003-04 season derailed his progress. Then came the lockout, and though he scored a career-high 38 goals in 2005-06, problems with his groin and hip were hindrances.

Gaborik signed a US$19 million, three-year contract last July and was all set for success with new arrival Pavol Demitra, his longtime pal and fellow Slovakian who was acquired in a draft-day trade. But seven games into the most promising season in Minnesota's brief history, Gaborik was injured again.

"Hopefully we can address it over the summer so it doesn't come back," he said. "We've just got to finish the season healthy and strong and just worry about it afterward."

Lemaire is a stern, demanding coach whose teams have long been known for their defence, and he has had trouble getting Gaborik - whose instincts are purely offensive - to give maximum effort on both ends.

When he came back on Jan. 6, he was going full speed and satisfying Lemaire's expectations. There have been games, though, when Gaborik hasn't.

"He really looks good at times, but he's going to improve for sure with time and experience," Lemaire said. "Every player is like that."

Gaborik, who turns 25 on Wednesday, is one of those few players around the league who is able to fall back on his supreme talent and still be effective. That's part of what can lead to his lapses.

"Until he matures. It's a challenge for anyone. (Pierre-Marc) Bouchard, him, and all the young kids, they're the same," Lemaire said.

Bouchard, a right-winger who like Gaborik went straight from the first round of the draft to the Wild's lineup, has often found himself in awe of his teammate, who is two years older than him.

"If he's not the fastest in the NHL, I don't know who is," Bouchard said.

With Gaborik and Demitra both healthy and back together on the same line, Minnesota is at full offensive strength and has been surging toward the Northwest Division lead.

"The team is doing good, and I feel comfortable on the ice," Gaborik said. "When I'm skating things are happening, so I feel good."

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