ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -Branko Radivojevic stood in perfect position, waiting for the puck that never came. He whacked his stick repeatedly, signaling to his Minnesota teammates that he was open.
Ignoring their fellow countryman's request in that game against St. Louis two weeks ago, Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik put on their own private passing show in front of the net - ending it with Gaborik's second goal of the night.
"Gabby was telling me that I wasn't open, but they scored the goal so it doesn't matter," Radivojevic said, laughing. "It was a really nice play."
Radivojevic, who has spent some time centering a line with Demitra and Gaborik this season, has known the two stars for years dating to their days growing up in Slovakia and training there in the summers. But an old friendship is not required to identify the impact Demitra and Gaborik have had on the Wild's attack this season. As this defense-first team prepares for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs next week, potential opponents in the loaded Western Conference are aware of the danger this duo will present.
"Everybody can see what we can do together," Demitra said recently. "He's a special player, and he can read me, and he makes my game much easier."
Entering Saturday's regular-season finale against the Blues, Demitra was tied with Brian Rolston for the team lead in points with 64. Gaborik would surely be ahead of them had he not missed 34 games because of a nagging groin strain. He has 55 points, including 30 goals for the fourth time in his career.
"We're pushing each other, and we always want to do the best we can," said Demitra, who was acquired in a trade last June with the Los Angeles Kings.
Their synchronized, exceptional offensive skills has led to problems. Coach Jacques Lemaire this week implored Demitra and Gaborik - who frequently face top defenseman from other teams - to dump the puck in the corner and follow up with a strong forecheck when necessary, instead of trying difficult, fancy passes through neutral-zone traffic.
Gaborik has seven goals and 11 assists in his last 13 games, but Demitra went a season-long five games without a goal or an assist and was scratched from Thursday's game against the Edmonton Oilers because of a strained leg muscle. Demitra is questionable for Saturday.
If he can't play, however, Lemaire said he's not worried about their synergy growing stale.
"They'll be fine," he said. "As soon as the intensity will go up automatically, these guys will get ready, there's no doubt."
The first player drafted by the Minnesota, which entered the NHL in 2000, Gaborik was forced to change his physical preparation while being sidelined with his injury for 2 1/2 months. He now arrives at the arena an extra half-hour earlier for deep-tissue massages and stretching and will enhance his summer routine to take better care of his muscles and ideally avoid another frustrating absence in the future.
"He came out of his car and jumped on the ice and went 100 mph," Lemaire said, referring to Gaborik's old habits. "No wonder he blew out a tire. He didn't even check the oil."
Gaborik's rehabilitation earned him a nomination from the local chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association for the league's annual Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. It's awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
"It's nice to be in company like that," Gaborik said.
The Wild, who made a surprising run to the conference finals in 2003, are stacked with much more scoring power this time with Demitra, Gaborik and Rolston leading the way.
"We have a better team than then, you know?" Gaborik said. "We can play as a team like we did then. Hopefully we can work as hard as we did and good things will happen."