LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Marian Gaborik first met up with the Los Angeles Kings in Winnipeg after a trade three months ago, center Mike Richards immediately took him out to breakfast. When the Kings returned home from that trip, Jeff Carter insisted Gaborik should move into his house instead of a hotel.
The Kings swiftly welcomed the itinerant Slovak goal-scorer into their tight-knit team, and Gaborik has rewarded them with a spectacular playoff performance all the way to the Stanley Cup finals — where he’s running into several more players he knows quite well.
"It’s great to be in the finals for the first time, but to play the Rangers makes it even more special," Gaborik said. "It might be a little weird at first, but after a while, it’ll be all business."
Gaborik is in his first Stanley Cup finals in a 13-season career with four teams — including the New York Rangers, who signed him to a lucrative five-year deal in 2009 and traded him to Columbus last year.
After another trade to the West Coast and a dynamic playoff run with the Kings, Gaborik has the unlikely chance to add to his NHL-best 12 playoff goals against friend Henrik Lundqvist and the Blueshirts.
"Deep down inside, I assume this one is pretty special to him," Carter said. "He wants it really bad."
Gaborik landed in Los Angeles as a desperate fix for an offensively struggling team. While Gaborik is hardly the only person responsible, the lowest-scoring team to make the postseason is now the highest-scoring team in the playoffs.
Gaborik is the league’s top postseason goal-scorer, and his 19 points are fourth in the league.
"Marian has done a lot for our confidence," Richards said. "When he came here, that just gave everybody a jolt of confidence in our offensive game. We’re a good defensive team, but having Marian here makes us a lot better offensively."
Combined with his 16 points in 19 regular-season games after the trade, Gaborik has been even better than the Kings likely hoped when they gave up Matt Frattin and two draft picks for a veteran who will be an unrestricted free agent in a month when his original Rangers contract expires.
Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi coveted Gaborik’s offensive abilities, but he also needed a scorer who could fit into the Kings’ defensive identity under coach Darryl Sutter. Gaborik is no one-dimensional goal-scorer after his time under defensive guru Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota, and Lombardi praises him as a quality teammate.
"His acclimation, being part of this group, is such a tribute to the guys in that room that embraced him the right way, made him feel part of the family," Lombardi said. "By virtue of that, it impresses upon him, `Hey, this is the way we play here. Certain things have to be done. Now go do what few players can.’"
Gaborik took over as Los Angeles’ top-line left wing alongside star center Anze Kopitar, and the European stars created instant chemistry with right wings Justin Williams and Dustin Brown, who currently occupies the spot.
"When we made the trade, everybody knew he was going to go up there with Kopi," Brown said. "I think they developed something (right away). It’s pretty easy to just jump in."
Gaborik’s memories of New York are mostly fond. Although he had two 40-goal seasons, he scored only six goals in 25 postseason games over two years. The Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, but no further.
The Rangers’ veterans realize the trouble that Gaborik can cause.
"He’s got great speed and great offensive instincts," said Dan Girardi, half of New York’s top defensive pairing. "We’re going to have to get in his way, make him skate the long way and try to be as hard as we can on him. He’s going to get his chances, but we have to make sure we limit them. He’s been playing real solid for them, and he’s going to be a big player in this series. Hopefully, we’ll shut him down."
Rangers general manager Glen Sather still thinks fondly of Gaborik, praising him as a good teammate and a sublime talent. But Sather made the trade to bolster New York’s depth, and all three players he acquired — Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore — have played important roles for the Rangers this spring.
The 32-year-old Gaborik has an unlikely opportunity to make the Rangers regret the deal, and he’s earning himself even more money in free agency with every big playoff game. Gaborik, who missed the Sochi Olympics due to injury, said he loves playing and living in Los Angeles, but won’t decide his future until the offseason.
"It’s been a roller-coaster year," Gaborik said. "I want to take this opportunity and just take everything in."