Rangers need Gabby to raise his game

Undated file photo of Marian Gaborik. Undated file photo of Marian Gaborik. Photo Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football. ...

GREENBURGH, N.Y.

John Tortorella stressed that the playoffs are a new season, for all his players.

He certainly is hoping that's truer for Marian Gaborik than for anyone else. For if a player, especially a marquee player, needs what Tortorella called "a clean slate," it's Gaborik.

The team statistics will tell you that Gaborik finished a respectable third on the Rangers with 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games after missing time with a separated shoulder and a concussion.

Your eyes will tell you something different. Gaborik, who showed bursts of speed and creativity in tight spaces last season, has had trouble not only accelerating to find open space but finding the puck in tight.

His quick hands and quick feet were the main reason he scored 42 goals in his first Rangers season. Whether the concussion, the shoulder or something else has hampered him, Gaborik does not seem himself; he has continued to shoulder the load, trying -- sometimes trying too much -- to get himself going.

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Gaborik has scored goals in only 14 of his 62 games, with two hat tricks and a four-goal game. The Rangers are 10-3-1 in those games.

"It's the fun time of year," Tortorella said Monday after the first postseason practice for the Rangers. "It's a whole different mind-set, and I hope Gabby realizes that."

Even though this Rangers team operates best when it operates together and the scoring is spread around, the spotlight will be on Gaborik when the puck drops Wednesday in Washington.

The Rangers' real star, Henrik Lundqvist, already is operating at a high level, so it is Gaborik, who might line up on the right side of a line with Artem Anisimov and Vinny Prospal directly opposite star scorer Alex Ovechkin, who'll be on the left side of the Caps' top line with Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.

It's not a matchup that Tortorella necessarily wants. With the last line change at home the first two games, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau will be more concerned with trying to keep Ovechkin away from the Marc Staal-Dan Girardi defense pair, but having Ovechkin line up opposite Gaborik would seem to favor the Caps.

Gaborik has a chance to change that. There are barely any Rangers on this hard hat- wearing team who have the talent to elevate their games in the playoffs. Gaborik is one, though, and after failing to score in the final nine games of the regular season, he is in need of some game elevation.

Tortorella has benched Gaborik twice in the final month of the season -- against the Senators and against the Thrashers -- both times because Gaborik stopped moving his feet on a backcheck, giving his man room to score. The coach and the star forward have had their bumps along the way this season.

"Our best players need to be our best every night," Tortorella has said more than a few times during Gaborik's rocky second season as a Ranger.

Gaborik is not the brash, spotlight-craving type, the way Ovechkin can be. The Caps' captain has had to tone down his wild game to allow his team to become sounder defensively, and it will be intriguing to see what Ovechkin does these first two games, when the adrenaline could overwhelm his desire to play conservatively.

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The Rangers need the opposite from Gaborik: He has to want the puck, want to be in the trenches in the big moments and want to lead with his play.

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Just being part of the pack hasn't worked much so far.

The Dolan family owns con- trolling interests in the Rangers, MSG and Cablevision.

Cablevision owns Newsday.

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