LOS ANGELES — It was February 5, 2012. The New York Rangers were one of the top teams in the NHL and about 30 minutes removed from beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2. The victory would improve the Rangers' record to 33-12-5.
Marian Gaborik scored his 26th goal of the season, and it was more about toughness and tenacity than speed and skill. He absorbed a punishing hit from defenseman Andrej Meszaros behind the Flyers net, scraped himself off the ice, went to the crease and backhanded a shot through the legs of Ilya Bryzgalov to put the Rangers ahead.
It was the type of goal that seemed to be exactly what hard-nosed coach John Tortorella would want from his top scorer. Yet after praising the tenacity Gaborik showed on that goal during his postgame press conference, Tortorella launched into an unforced anecdote about how when Gaborik first came to the Rangers in 2009, he didn't want to practice or get out of the locker room hot tub or drive the net for goals. Gaborik enjoyed spending more time in the trainers' room getting a massage than working on his game on the ice.
It was the strongest evidence yet that Gaborik was never going to win over his coach.
A year later, the Rangers traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
A few months later, the Rangers fired Tortorella.
It was the end of a tumultuous relationship between a player and coach who never saw eye to eye.
One year after Gaborik was dealt, he is wearing a Los Angeles Kings sweater, dominating in the postseason in a way he never did with the Rangers. He is three wins from his first Stanley Cup, and he can accomplish that goal against the team that deemed him expendable, even if the coach who helped facilitate his trade to Columbus is no longer there.
"It’s a little weird obviously," Gaborik said. "But it’s something special, especially playing them in the Final makes it even more special. Going to (Madison Square) Garden for my first time to play them is going to be different. I’m going to take this opportunity and take it and just leave everything out there.
"I had a lot of fun. Great time. To come to the Big Apple and play there almost four full years, playing one conference final. I had a lot of good times."
It's easy to look at the passive, seemingly lost Rick Nash and wonder what could have been if the Rangers had kept Gaborik. Nash has three goals in 21 postseason games—none of them meaningful, none against a starting NHL goaltender. Meanwhile, Gaborik has 12 goals in 22 games, including a late tying goal and overtime winner in Game 1 of the second round against the Anaheim Ducks.
|2014 postseason, Rangers-Blue Jackets trades|
Gaborik has three two-goal games; Nash has three one-goal games and nothing more.
It seems Gaborik has found a home in the Kings locker room in a way he never did in New York.
"When I got traded, I wanted to fit in in terms of on the ice and off the ice," Gaborik said. "This team has been together for couple years here. Ninety percent of those guys won the Cup two years ago. When you're coming to a team that has won and been contender past few years, you want to make sure you fit in, buy into the system, try and contribute."
While Gaborik has been racking up points riding shotgun with Anze Kopitar, the Rangers have been benefiting from his departure in their own way.
The Rangers acquired Nash from the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2013, convinced they needed another big scorer in the playoffs after Gaborik had just five goals in 20 games in 2012. Irony of that decision aside, it also left the Rangers with a group of bottom-six forwards who may as well have been six fire hydrants or five stuffed animals and a tin of popcorn.
The deal also left the Rangers with three right wings—Nash, Gaborik and Ryan Callahan—which meant someone was usually playing out of position.
Lacking depth, the Rangers shipped Gaborik to Columbus at the 2013 trade deadline for Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett.
Brassard centers perhaps the best third line in the NHL with Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, while Dorsett is the regular right wing on a fourth line that has been a big contributor in the postseason. Moore gave the Rangers their first legitimate sixth defenseman in years, replacing the likes of Steve Eminger and Stu Bickel in the process.
"I like Marian a lot," Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. "I think he's a great guy and a great player. To get the kind of quality players that we were able to get, we needed depth on our team, and it certainly did it for us. I'm happy for Marian. He's a terrific guy. It was like every trade. It's complicated and difficult."
The Kings got their elite scorer at this year's deadline. The Rangers got their depth at last year's deadline.
One way or another, Gaborik is going to be a big reason why one of these teams will win the Stanley Cup.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.