Alex Rodriguezisn't New York's only clutch home run hitter lately. The Rangers have thefabulous Marian Gaborik, who skates at Mach 4 and releases his wrist shot asquickly as anyone since Joe Sakic in his prime. Gaborik had eight goals in theRangers' first 11 games—six in the third period. One was a game-winner, onetied the score and another extended a one-goal lead.
How's that forMr. October? Of all the skaters who joined new teams for 2009--10, none has hadmore impact than Gaborik (15 points total), a right wing who has gamboled(responsibly) for coach John Tortorella after chafing in Minnesota'sbutton-down system for eight years under Jacques Lemaire. "You can grindout goals, but over the course of an 82-game schedule you're not going to besuccessful unless you have a guy who can do things offensively that no one canteach," says Tortorella. "What I love about Gabby is he's cerebral. Heasks questions. You don't always see that from the creative guys, who just wantto do their thing."
Like all home runhitters, Gaborik can be a one-man rally. Although the Rangers were beingoutplayed by Los Angeles on Oct. 14, they were clinging to a 3--2 third-periodlead when, on a harmless-looking rush, Gaborik took a pass from linemate VinnyProspal and whistled a 27-foot shot past Kings goalie Erik Ersberg; it would bethe Rangers' only shot of the period. "That's Gaborik," Phoenix G.M.Don Maloney says. "L.A. is hanging around, but one shot and he turns themomentum. Game over."
The one thingthat has consistently stopped Gaborik in recent years has been his body. Beforesigning with New York he had played in just 207 of 328 games postlockout,including only 17 last season, because of groin and hip problems. (He averaged1.1 points per game when healthy, including a five-goal outburst against theRangers in a December 2007 game.) Gaborik has had multiple hip surgeries,performed by Marc Philippon—yes, the same doctor who operated on A-Rod—and hisinjury history might have engendered the ready-made label of "soft" inthe unflinching NHL. But, says the Blues' Paul Kariya, who also had a hipprocedure and who rehabbed with Gaborik last winter, "He's the opposite ofsoft. He's a big-time competitor."
At week's end NewYork was second in the league with 3.73 goals per game, almost a goal and ahalf better than at the end of last season, when it ranked 28th. The presenceof Gaborik "brings other people out of their shell" offensively, saysTortorella, and challenges them to try new things. While Gaborik stilloccasionally turns over the puck while trying to create offense, the Rangerscan live with it. "When you have a player who sees the game in ways thatyou and I never will," Tortorella says, "a coach has to be careful notto get in the way."
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UNLEASHED Tortorella (inset) has given Gaborik (left) freedom to take chances—and New York has been well rewarded.
SCOTT LEVY/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (TORTORELLA)
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