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Full Metal Jackets

Columbus goes all-in, a visit with the Wild, and the rest of the week in the NHL

Marian Gaborik is a pretty quiet guy off the ice. Even after the Columbus Blue Jackets’ commanding 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night — a game in which he dished a gorgeous assist to Ryan Johansen and later scored a beautiful nail-in-the-coffin goal of his own — he stood in the home locker room at Nationwide Arena and spoke in a voice so soft and calm you had to strain to hear what he was saying.

Only once did he crack a wide and crinkly-eyed smile, almost in spite of himself. It was when he was asked how it felt to score his first goal on home ice for the Blue Jackets, the team he was traded to in an 11th-hour deadline deal with the New York Rangers on April 3.

“Very good feeling,” he said. “The fans are great. And Arty [Anisimov] made a beautiful pass. So it felt good.”

A few feet away on a locker room whiteboard, scrawled in uneven hand near a more neatly penned pregame itinerary, were the words:

GOOD LUCK BOYS

Mase, Brass, Dorse, Mooresy!

You wonder if the boys in question ever even saw the note. Goalie Steve Mason, forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett, and defenseman John Moore were together in their apartment complex when they found out, as their phones buzzed one by one, that they were all heading out of town last week, Mason to Philadelphia and the rest to the New York Rangers for Gaborik in what was the biggest move of the day. As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Michael Arace wrote, “It happened as fast as a slash.”

In Gaborik, the Blue Jackets have gained a three-time 40-goal scorer (last season with the Rangers, he finished with 76 points, the third-best result of his career), a distinction that places Gaborik in rare company. But the team also acquired something more: respectability, maybe, or just cred. For Gaborik to come to Columbus he had to waive a no-trade clause. And while there’s no doubt there was some push behind his decision to do so — let’s just say he and John Tortorella were never the most simpatico pair — there was, for the first time in a while, also a pull.

“I had some time to think about it,” Gaborik had said on Sunday. “I talked to a couple of guys here — J.D. [president of hockey operations John Davidson] and Jarmo [Kekalainen, the team's new GM since mid-February] — and they made my decision a lot easier.”

Gaborik singled out a few things that had attracted him to the Blue Jackets. He spoke with Vinny Prospal, a former Rangers teammate, who had “nothing but only good things to say about this team.” He also knew Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, who were traded in the offseason for Rick Nash. (“Happy!” Anisimov said simply when I asked how he felt when he heard Gaborik would be joining the team.)

“It’s a young team,” said the 31-year-old right winger, who teamed up with Dubinsky on the road in Nashville to score a goal in his first game with Columbus. “We have three first-round picks this year. Since J.D. took over — he kind of lighted up the team in St. Louis, then came here — I think it’s going in the right direction. That was one of the things that made me think about taking my no-trade clause away.”

When Zach Parise made the decision to sign with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent this offseason, he was attracted for a similar reason. (Well, in addition to 98 million other reasons.) He had heard often, he said, that the Wild had one of the deepest prospect pools in the league: a good sign for the future. “That had a lot to do with it, to have this type of depth,” he said Sunday.

The good thing about having that kind of roster is it gives a team flexibility: It can develop and deploy the prospects over a long period of time, or package them in short-term minded trades. “When you’re able to part with two good prospects and picks on top of that,” Parise said, “you feel comfortable with what you have on your roster and what you’ve got coming up.” He was referring to what the Wild did at the deadline, sending Matt Hackett, Johan Larsson, and a first- and second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in return for Jason Pominville, who was drafted by Buffalo and had spent his entire career there.

“It was a little bit of a shock at first,” Pominville said. “It’s probably a big shock for [Gaborik], too; he played the day after. It’s a lot of travel, a lot of things going through your mind — what are you gonna do with what you have, in his case in New York, in my case in Buffalo. Your house, your family, your kids … there’s a lot of side things that you’ve got to try to figure out.”

Unbeknownst to Pominville at the time, his own family — his wife, Kim, her father, and her and Jason’s two young kids — were driving from Buffalo to surprise him after Sunday night’s game. It was a scheme cooked up by Kim and facilitated by Parise and the Minnesota Wild team services staff, which launched into thoughtful last-minute action on Saturday night. Child-size Wild jerseys were shipped in from St. Paul — by charter plane, because FedEx doesn’t deliver on Sundays — and the family’s progress was kept under close watch. Car troubles were monitored, a hotel suite was arranged once the team learned that Kim had planned to drive all the way back to Buffalo that night, and when the family arrived the team was there to capture the moment.

Late in the third period, with his family in the Nationwide Arena crowd, Pominville buried a perfect pass by Parise for his first Wild goal, and Minnesota came away with a crucial 3-0 win. After the game he stood in the cavernous underground of the arena, near the loading docks, spending as many minutes with his wife and kids as he could. Parise came by to say hello — “We’re excited to have him!” he told Kim — as did head coach Mike Yeo. Pominville’s daughter ran around in light-up shoes; his son repeatedly tossed a water bottle on the ground and giggled every time Daddy had to go get it. “High five!” Pominville said when it was time to get on the team bus to Chicago, and his son happily obliged.

The trade deadline is different for every team. The Wild fancy themselves contenders and were willing to give up prospects and a pick for a nearer-term player in Pominville. (It helps that he’s also signed through next season, making the acquisition more than a “rental.”) The Columbus Blue Jackets, despite a spirited late-season run, will probably find themselves on the outside of the playoffs once again — and yet this time, things feel different. Several fans I spoke with said that the deadline moves were a sign that the Jackets are bullish on their near-to-middle-term chances and are willing to invest.

And for the San Jose Sharks, who came to Nationwide Arena on Tuesday, the trade deadline represented a chance to try out what GM Doug Wilson will call a “refresh” or “reset” but not a “rebuild.” The Sharks unloaded Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray, and Martin Handzus, but it was more addition by subtraction than it was some sort of fire sale. The Sharks won seven straight leading up to and after the trade deadline, though they’ve faltered in their last two games — a 5-4 shootout loss to Dallas and Sunday night’s 4-0 stinker in Columbus. The good news is that, with the trade deadline past, no one needed to fear they’d be traded based on the game.

“There is a sigh of relief,” said Dan Boyle, who was long rumored to be on the trading block but wasn’t moved. “For the guys kinda in the rumor mill, it’s not always fun. Now you can certainly turn the page and now we can focus on the games instead of on, you know, where you’re gonna be.”

Tuesday’s 4-0 win over San Jose was a game in which you could visibly see the Blue Jackets trying to make amends for their lackluster effort in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the Wild, a crushing shutout that had substantially lessened the team’s dwindling chances for a playoff spot. Still, the sense in Columbus is that for the first time in a while there’s something to look forward to. After Tuesday’s contest, Gaborik tweeted: “I’m very pleasantly surprised with the city of Columbus. Nice ppl and great fans!” Since the trade, he’s repeatedly explained in stoic tones that he views his new role and his new team as a “new challenge” in his career. He’s also said more than once that he appreciates how much the franchise specifically wanted him.

“I think it’s good,” Columbus’s Mark Letestu said on Sunday. “Now he’s ‘the guy’ — it’s probably very similar to the way it was in Minnesota for him, where he thrived.” Letestu gave up his no. 10 to Gaborik after having surrendered no. 17 to Brandon Dubinsky last season. “I like to keep the fans on my toes and change my number every six months,” he joked, adding that while he had heard stories from other sports of the high market prices a coveted jersey number can command, that wasn’t the case in Columbus. “But if he wants to take me to dinner?” he said, smiling. “I’m more than happy to go.”

After the win, John Davidson — who with his refrigerator of a body and white shock of a mustache is an imposing yet beloved uncle-like presence; you don’t know whether you want to cower before him or bear-hug him — strode through the Blue Jackets locker room. Noticing Gaborik still there, he doubled back over to his newest player, made meaningful eye contact, and vigorously shook his hand. “Marian,” he said simply, and the soft-spoken Gaborik nodded back. No one needed to say anything more.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Guess who’s back, back again? Ovi’s back, tell a friend …

“Radio question in February: Is Alex Ovechkin finished?” tweeted The Sporting News‘s Jesse Spector a few days ago. “Radio question this morning: Is Alex Ovechkin a Hart Trophy candidate?”

Even in the wildly volatile world of sports, Ovechkin has stood out as a player who is considered almost solely in bipolar fashion. He’s either the best player in the world or he’s on steroids. One day he’s a coach killer, the next he’s been completely and unfairly mishandled. He’s finished, figured out, washed up, certain to decamp to Russia — or he’s back, baby, and playing on one of the hottest lines in the league. He’s a left wing, he’s a right wing, he’s “the man,” he’s got 16 goals in his last 13 games and is being batted around in consideration for MVP honors. Do you have whiplash yet?

Ovechkin’s recent hot streak has seen him score in all sorts of ways. There have been the tipped shots in front of the net to tie games:


There have been the hat tricks:

And, as if specifically designed to shut up all the people who complained that Ovechkin’s goals haven’t come against tough-enough competition, there have been electrifying moments like this one against the Montreal Canadiens:

“Right now I’m scoring goals and I’m the king of the world,” Ovechkin said on March 25. “A couple weeks ago I was almost in the toilet. So maybe you just forgot to flush me.”

A few other great goals this week: Patrick Kane sets up Jonathan Toews, Nail Yakupov romps through #yakcity, and T.J. Galiardi nets an insane backhand.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Hmm, so much to choose from this week. Like this goal from the Rangers’ Rick Nash, which really was neither Mark Fraser’s nor Cody Franson’s finest moment.

Or perhaps we should focus on the fact that on March 12, the Carolina Hurricanes were 15-9-1 and led the Southeast Division … and now a month later they’re 16-21-2. This graph is hard to look at.

Carolina

Nah, I think it’s gotta be that Anaheim fans, intending to make life miserable for the Edmonton Oilers’ Justin Schultz (who was drafted by the Ducks but declined to sign with them) … instead voiced their displeasure with the Edmonton Oilers’ Nick Schultz. Ducks fans, I love you dearly, but OOF.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

This recap of a Canucks-Coyotes game includes the best parenthetical aside ever:

(One thing to note on the own-goal: Zack Kassian celebrates like Hamhuis scored it on a breakaway. While everyone else on the bench just stands around stoically, he grins like a kid at Disneyland and then delivers vigorous butt-slaps to Henrik and Higgins. Both ignore him.)

• Here’s a really nice essay by The Globe‘s James Mirtle about being a sportswriter and being a fan.

• I clearly need to start paying attention to more press conferences held by Claude Noel, coach of the Winnipeg Jets. Noel talked about “dinosaurs running in my head” and then clarified: “Oh, some days, yeah. There’s big ones. Jurassic Park.” (New game: NHL coach or the Preschool Gems Twitter account?)

• If you haven’t read Grantland’s Sean McIndoe on playoff bubble teams and the last few weeks of the regular season, what are you waiting for?

• A few injury notes as we head toward the postseason: The Vancouver Canucks announced that Chris Higgins has a lower-body injury and will hopefully return for the playoffs; Ilya Kovalchuk is on the mend, but still working his way back to the struggling Devils; Erik Karlsson is, unbelievably, recovering ahead of schedule; and Detroit’s Darren Helm, the Wild’s Dany Heatley, and Montreal’s Alexei Emelin all suffered season-ending injuries. Also, James Neal is out indefinitely with a concussion and poor Sidney Crosby looks like Two-Face.

And a Beauty! The Week’s Best in Net

I’m just going to leave this MIKE SMITH HULK SMASH video here and back away slowly and then turn around and break into a full sprint.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

When the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk his usual uproarious laughter, pointed out the grim body language of the Colorado team.

“Look at the Avalanche bench, Ken,” he said. “I mean, you’re watching the Red Wings celebrate — not one of the Avalanche have moved! Why?”

Shell shock, probably. But it was a prescient observation about a team that, a few days later, would draw much wider scrutiny from the hockey world for the way it’s looked during (and between) games. Following a 3-1 defeat to the lowly Calgary Flames (right now one of the Avs’ biggest competitors for last place in the league and the best odds for the first overall pick), goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère — who had also been in net for Datsyuk’s goal — lashed out at his teammates.

“Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t care about your Vegas trip right now.”

To be fair, no one in history has ever cared about another person’s Vegas trip. It’s like hearing about someone’s delayed flight. But for Giguère, a proud 15-year veteran who has both a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe — in different years — to his name, it rankled more than that. “It’s embarrassing,” he said. “I’m embarrassed to be here right now. It’s not even funny.”

Thousands of miles away, meanwhile, another struggling hockey team drew similar levels of disgust. The Buffalo Sabres didn’t even lose their game to the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night — they won 3-2 in a shootout — but fans nevertheless loudly voiced their seasons-long angst throughout the game. “They want to see better, but sometimes it’s going to be a battle,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “Sometimes it’s going to be hard. We need their help. We need them to be behind us. We hear them.”

Forward Steve Ott was more aggressive in his remarks. “Our fans were booing us every opportunity they had,” he said testily after the game, then doubled down on Tuesday on his weekly radio-show appearance. You can read a robust transcript here, but there are two things that stand out. The first is that, after ranting about the fans for five minutes straight, he added: “I’m not bagging on our fans at all because we do have a lot of fantastic fans” — which is like talking shit behind someone’s back for a while and ending it with “But she’s a really nice girl.” The second is that someone ought to offer Ott’s fiancée a tryout contract — she’d make for a pretty great enforcer.

Hockey Haiku

Contract for nine years
Fifty-one million dollars
Nice one, Paul Holmgren.

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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