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Continued: Gaborik's disappearing act is a big playoff predicament

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 18, 2008 - 4:11 PM

There was only one question worth asking about the Wild on Thursday night, and it had nothing to do with goons, goaltending, gumption or guts.

It had to do with the G that matters most to this franchise:

Gaborik.

The question: How can a player this good be this bad when his team needs him this much?

Marian Gaborik should have been the best player on the ice in the Wild's 3-2 Game 5 loss to Colorado. He should have been the best player in this series. Instead, he has been so inept sometimes you can't tell him and Eric Belanger apart. And, all Martin Skoula references aside, that might be the worst thing you can say about a Wild player these days.

This was a big series for Gabby. He's a year from free agency. This postseason could have been the crucible in which he proved himself irreplaceable.

Instead, through five games, he's disappeared as surely as Alex Rodriguez in October.

When a talented player becomes frustrated, the operative phrase in hockey is, "He's squeezing the stick too tight."

It's a wonder Gaborik is left with anything more than sawdust (or melted graphite) by the end of each shift.

He didn't just miss shots. He had trouble controlling the puck. He had trouble touching the puck. At times, Gaborik, one of the most gifted players in the world, seemed to lose all motor skills.

Gaborik has been a wonderful player here, but he is the most passive of hockey stars, a player who sometimes waits for opportunities instead of creating them.

While Gaborik has floundered, Brian Rolston -- with far less speed and much older legs -- has been spectacular all series. Even Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who sometimes avoids the net like it's coated with asbestos, has created space and made plays, a year after disappearing against Anaheim in the first round.

Gaborik? He couldn't be less recognizable if he borrowed Peter Forsberg's beard.

He set a franchise record for goals and points this season, scored five goals in one game, and now he looks incapable of missing the goalie's breastbone -- when he manages to get a shot on net.

Thursday, his teammates offered a supreme effort and dominated the first two periods, but you don't get points for effort and shots on goal. Someone's got to put the puck in the net, and that someone should be Gaborik.

Starting with the last game of the regular season, the Avs have held Gaborik without a point for six consecutive games, his longest pointless streak since he went five games without a goal or assist from Dec. 29, 2003, through Jan. 4, 2004. "You can't think about that, you have to forget it and stay positive," Gaborik said earlier this week. "Keep skating, finding openings, keep shooting the puck."

Entering this series, Gaborik had 21 points and was a plus-3 in 23 career playoff games. "Every player that doesn't produce, he gets frustrated," Lemaire said Thursday morning. "That's part of the game. He has to skate and beat people, drive at the net, do things other guys do that are getting some shots."

Thursday night, sensing Gaborik's distress, Lemaire tried to soften his criticism. "He's squeezing his stick a little tight," Lemaire said. "When you score over 40 goals and then the playoffs start and you don't even get one, it doesn't take long for you to feel the pressure."

This is the Curse of Gabby -- he can buoy the team or let it sink, and another first-round flop might usher in the most tumultuous summer in franchise history.

By next fall, the Wild will have a new owner and will have made decisions on Rolston, Pavol Demitra and perhaps Gaborik.

A year from free agency, Gaborik is in the process of determining whether the Wild will try hard to re-sign him or consider trading him.

If he doesn't find a way to turn this series around, that decision might be simpler than any of us had anticipated.

Whatever the Wild decides, Gaborik's price is dropping -- either in terms of what he can garner in a contract, or a trade.

Thursday night, in the biggest game of the season, Gaborik played like he had hands of stone.

He's better than this. Or so we thought.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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