Although there have been times this postseason when Marian Gaborik seemed invisible, the mercurial New York Rangers forward certainly was easy to spot early Thursday morning.
That's because after nearly five hours of battling the pesky Washington Capitals in Wednesday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Gaborik was able to deliver the winner in a classic triple-overtime battle.
There were many heroes for the Rangers in the game that lasted 114 minutes, 41 seconds, including goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 45-of-46 shots. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh also deserves to be lauded for blocking eight shots while eating up a massive amount of ice time (53:17).
Yet, while Lundqvist and McDonagh have been studs for the Rangers since the playoffs began, for the most part, Gaborik has been a no-show.
For Gaborik, it was just the second goal in 10 playoff contests this spring and his first since scoring in New York's postseason opener against Ottawa on April 12.
The highly paid Slovakian winger is known for his speed and sniping ability, but his big goal on Tuesday night was all about going to the net. With just over five minutes remaining in the third extra session, Gaborik parked himself outside the crease and Rangers center Brad Richards fed him the puck. All Gaborik did was flip the puck between the pads of Washington goaltender Braden Holtby to give New York a 2-1 victory and a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series.
Although he is second on the team this postseason with seven points, Gaborik's goal-scoring woes had become a major concern for the Rangers. After all, New York is not a team with a great deal of offensive firepower. Instead, the Blueshirts have relied heavily on strong defensive play and the superior goaltending of Lundqvist to eke out close wins.
That formula has been effective for the Rangers, but getting Gaborik on the right track will be key if New York wants to claim its first Stanley Cup title since 1994.
Even after Richards signed a nine-year, $60 million contract to join the Rangers last summer, Gaborik is still the team's highest-paid player, earning $7.5 million a season. Gaborik experienced little difficulty in providing a large chunk of the offense during the regular season, scoring 41 times -- 12 more goals than Ryan Callahan, who was next on the team with 29 markers.
However, until delivering the big goal in Game 3 against Washington, Gaborik seemed to be wilting under the spotlight of the playoffs. At times during this postseason, Gaborik appeared lost and his rudderless play led head coach John Tortorella to cut his star winger's ice time in certain games.
Gaborik's disappearing act could have led to a lesser team losing to eighth- seeded Ottawa in the opening round, but New York's defense and goaltending covered for his lack of production. The Rangers outscored the Senators by a 14-13 margin in Round 1 and New York is stuck in a similar dogfight early in its series with the Capitals. The Blueshirts have seven goals to Washington's five over the first three games, but Gaborik could help turn the tide if his game-winner gets him on a hot streak.
"I hope it gets Gabby (Gaborik) going. It's a guy we need as we continue," Tortorella said after Game 3.
In addition to getting Gaborik back on track, Wednesday's thrilling victory was also a relief to the Rangers as a whole. The club had lost seven straight overtime playoff games -- including two this spring against Ottawa -- before finally coming through past regulation last night.
Going forward, the Rangers have to keep their focus against a Washington team that is attempting to mirror New York's sound defensive strategy. Although the Capitals are not as relentless on the forecheck as the Rangers are, Washington does seem comfortable playing these close games.
However, while New York has been doing this all season long, Washington has slowly been transformed by head coach Dale Hunter since he took over the reins in late November. If there was a team that is closer to cracking it would appear to be the Capitals.
As the most dynamic offensive player the Rangers have, Gaborik could play the biggest role in hastening Washington's demise.