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Gaborik scores, but Slovaks drop opener

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers


Less than 60 games into his career as a New York Ranger, Blueshirts fans already know just how much Marian Gaborik can mean to a hockey team.

So perhaps it really wasn't a surprise that when his country needed him to step up and deliver in its Olympic hockey opener late Wednesday night, Gaborik was right there for Slovakia.

Rangers forward Marian Gaborik celebrates his goal for Team Slovakia just 47 seconds into the second period for a 1-1 tie Wednesday night in Vancouver.
Gaborik scored Slovakia's first goal of the 2010 games just 47 seconds into the second period against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night in Vancouver. He also had six shots on goal in 20:12 of ice time, the second-highest total among Slovak forwards.

Unfortunately for Slovakia, Gaborik's uplifting goal wasn't enough, as the Slovaks fell to the Czechs 3-1, thanks to outstanding netminding by Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun and an inspired performance from 38-year-old former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, who scored the game-winning goal in the second period.

Slovakia outshot the Czechs 35-24, and the Czech squad registered only two shots in the scoreless final period, as it focused on defense and let Vokoun do the rest of the work with 12 stops, many on high-quality chances. Vokoun, the Florida Panthers' No. 1 goalie during the NHL season, finished with 34 saves.

Gaborik and Slovakia will return to the ice late Thursday night to face Russia, one of this year's gold-medal hopefuls.

In Olympic hockey games played earlier on Wednesday, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist notched a shutout as Sweden blanked Germany 2-0, and forward Olli Jokinen scored a power-play goal in Finland's 5-1 win over Belarus

On Tuesday, the Slovaks weren't even sure that Gaborik would be able to play against the Czech Republic. Cut on the knee by Lundqvist's skate during a Feb. 9 practice at the MSG Training Center, Gaborik had missed two of the Blueshirts' final three games before the Olympic break and saw limited action in the overtime win at Pittsburgh on Feb. 12.

The Slovak team doctor had even suggested to reporters that Gaborik might miss his team's first two Olympic games on Wednesday and Thursday in order to fully recover from the 21-stitch laceration. But when the bell rang at game time, Gaborik was in the lineup wearing his familiar No. 10.

Gaborik initially skated on a line with Ziggy Palffy and center Jozef Stumpel, two former NHL stars now playing in Europe. He later moved on to lines with others, including Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa, and spent a lot of time on the power play.

The showdown between the Czechs and Slovaks was the first game of the 2010 Olympics featuring two historic rivals and the first pitting two teams with legitimate medal hopes against each other. As such, Gaborik had strong incentive to play, even though at first it seemed that he was not skating at full speed. As time wore on, however, he returned to his old self and showed virtually no signs of any injury for the bulk of the night.

The game also featured Jagr, who was outstanding with a goal and assist in the middle period to break open a 1-1 game. A gold medalist at Nagano in 1998 and a bronze medalist at Torino in 2006, the Czech Republic's 38-year-old alternate captain as spent the 2009-10 season with Omsk of the Russian-based KHL. Ironically, one of Jagr's former Rangers linemates, Marcel Hossa, was among Gaborik's teammates on the Slovak side Wednesday.

The Czechs broke the ice at 9:02 of the first period when Patrik Elias of the Devils deflected defenseman Miroslav Blatak's shot from the right point past Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak of the Montreal Canadiens to make it 1-0. Martin Havlat also assisted on the play.

Gaborik was called for a cross-checking penalty at 13:06 of the first period, when he cleared some room in front of Tomas Vokoun's net by knocking down a Czech defender. Gaborik was in position to score on the play, which was whistled dead because of the penalty.

The Slovaks got their first man-advantage at 17:15 of the first period when Czech defenseman Marek Zidlicky of the Minnesota Wild was called for boarding. Gaborik came out on Slovakia's second power-play unit with Stumpel and Palffy, but the Slovaks did not score.

The first period ended with the Czechs leading 1-0. Shots were even at 10-10 in the opening 20 minutes as Vokoun stopped all 10 Slovak shots.

Gaborik saw considerable ice time in the opening period. Among Slovak forwards, only Pavol Demitra and Michal Handzus had more first-period ice time than Gaborik's 6:21.

Gaborik was even stronger in the second period, as he scored the Slovaks' first goal at 0:47 of the second. Positioned near the left faceoff dot, Gaborik took a pass from NHL star Marian Hossa of the Blackhawks and ripped a shot past Vokoun into the top right corner. It was the fourth Olympic goal of Gaborik's career, which has included appearances at both the 2002 and 2006 Games.

In his first game back in North America after leaving the NHL for the KHL in 2008, former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr was among the best Czech players on the ice.against Slovakia on Wednesday.
Slovakia built on the momentum from Gaborik's goal by drawing a penalty at 2:57 when Blatak went off for interference. Gaborik came out for the power play along with Hossa and Pavol Demitra. Vokoun was forced to make a big glove save on a Gaborik slap shot from the slot. Gaborik also nearly set up a goal by Marian Hossa, whose deflection was stopped by Vokoun.

During a later Slovak power play, with the Czechs serving a bench minor for having too many men on the ice at 11:13 of the second, Gaborik had two more scoring chances that required tough saves by Vokoun.

Jagr eventually broke the 1-1 tie with a go-ahead goal with 2:04 remaining in the second period. Sprung in the neutral zone by Czech leaguer Roman Cervenka, Jagr skated down the slot and blew a shot past Halak for his sixth career Olympic goal. Jagr's goal, which made it 2-1, came moments after Marian Hossa hit the post on a scoring opportunity at the other end of the ice.

The Czechs struck again on a power play with only two seconds left in the second period, as Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens crashed the net to put in the rebound of a shot by Jagr that had dribbled through the crease, giving his team a 3-1 lead.

Gaborik saw an additional 6:07 of ice time in the second period and led all players in the second period with four shots at Vokoun, including the lone Slovak goal. Through 40 minutes, he still ranked third among Slovakia forwards with 12:28 total ice time.

His ice time shot up even higher to 7:44 in the third period. Demitra, who played 7:47 in the third period and 21:29 for the game, was the only Slovak forward who spent more time on the ice.

Gaborik almost scored again in the first minute of the third period, as he came out on a line with Demitra and Marian Hossa -- as Slovak coach Jan Filc placed all of his snipers on the same line to generate more offense.

Vokoun was up to the task, however, and he made one of his biggest third-period saves on a low shot by Gaborik just over eight minutes into the final period. Gaborik came back to draw a penalty at 10:47 of the third. Sprung on a potential breakaway, Gaborik was pulled down by the Czechs' Jan Hejda of the Columbus Blue Jackets. During the power play, Vokoun made a tremendous stop on Gaborik's wrister from the right circle.
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