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Slovakian stars leadWild into playoffs

Gaborik, Demitra a dynamic duo with special bond

By Michael Russo

McClatchy Newspapers

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Robyn Regehr doesn’t suffer from motion sickness, and that’s a good thing, because the Calgary defenseman wasn’t expecting to spin up and down the ice like a dreidel when the Flames arrived in Minnesota last month.

Regehr was given the unenviable assignment of defending Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik, and the Wild wizards spent the night making Regehr twist and turn as he tried to guard against what’s been dubbed the "Lob Pass."

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You know, the pass where Gaborik takes off the second Demitra gets the puck. Demitra then lobs the puck up ice in the hope of Gaborik catching up on either a breakaway or a one-on-one situation with a very vulnerable, very dizzy defenseman.

You can bet the Anaheim Ducks, the Wild’s opponent when the first round of the NHL playoffs open Wednesday night, have been well-schooled about the lob pass. In fact, you can be certain the Honda Center is well stocked with Dramamine.

"It’s something that doesn’t happen against any other teams," said Regehr, who looked like a cornerback who lost sight of the football. "It’s a total adventure when a guy like Gaborik, with all that speed, is skating forward and you’re skating backward. And even if you’re with him, one bad bounce, next thing you know he has the puck in the slot and you’re in trouble."

And that’s just the way Demitra likes it.

"It’s a good play, because at least you’re forcing the defense to always be nervous about it," Demitra said. "I’d be nervous if I had to challenge the fastest guy in the league. When Gabby gets going, it’s almost impossible to stop him."

Gaborik nods, proudly. Demitra, sensing this, adds, "When we play with (Atlanta Thrashers superstar Marian) Hossa (in international competition), I lob it and let Gabby and Hossa fight for the puck and the breakaway.

"I do it just to amuse myself."

Mind readers

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Spend any time with Gaborik, 25, and Demitra, 32, and it’s easy to see why they’re one of the NHL’s most electrifying dynamic duos, why sometimes they seem to read each other’s mind.

"Because we only use one brain — mine," Demitra said, straight-faced.

Gaborik, laughing hysterically, shot back, "Yeah, we use the bald one."

Seemingly attached at the hip — "On the road we spend 24 hours a day together," Demitra says — the Slovak sidekicks live to cut each other up.

Asked how much they love picking each other, Gaborik smiled ear-to-ear.

"Lots of different jokes," Gaborik said. "We pick on each other in all kinds of areas. Sometimes it gets too much though, too personal with stuff, and we get mad. I always tell him he’s bald and ‘Big (Butt),’ and he’s always calling me ugly and how he’s so good-looking."

"We’re very close. We know everything about each other," Demitra added, before interrupting himself. "You should listen to us on the bench. We yell at each other a lot. If we don’t get the puck when we want it, we let each other know when somebody’s unhappy. That’s how it’s supposed to be."

A positive influence

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It’s easy to see what Demitra and Gaborik mean to each other on the ice. They combined for 40 goals and 87 points since Jan. 11, and teammates joke how their statistics would be gaudier if they all wore No. 10.

But General Manager Doug Risebrough has noticed a significant difference in Gaborik’s maturity since he traded for Demitra last summer.

"Demitra’s kind of got that laid-back, analyze-everything demeanor," Risebrough said. "There’s a real high respect factor there with Marian to Pavol. I’m sure it has a lot do with the younger-to-older thing, but Pavol influences Marian in a lot of positive ways, whether it’s calming him down, whether it’s jacking him up.

"If you think about it, Gabby’s never had somebody in the room willing to keep him honest."

Gaborik agrees, saying, "I’ve learned a lot this year. To be around one of my best friends, a guy who’s been around and has a lot of experience and has played so good in the NHL, it’s been a good thing."

Even though Gaborik and Demitra dominated at the 2006 Olympics and for the elite Slovakian team Trencin during the NHL’s lockout of 2004-05, some skeptics wondered how successful they’d be in the NHL. Often, linemates can be like oil and water even when they have complementary parts.

"Pavol Demitra’s a good player, but if you want him to be a solo player, he’s not going to be," said Craig Button, a Toronto Maple Leafs. "You have to get him the right linemate. And we’ve seen now, you put him with a guy like Marian, Pavol doesn’t just jump from here to here. It’s exponential."

Best may be yet to come

As good as Demitra and Gaborik have been, Demitra says the two still are waiting for that one breakout game. He’s hoping that’ll come in the playoffs, although that’s an awfully tall task against the hard-hitting Ducks.

"I feel we can still play better," said Demitra, who has scored 20 goals in nine consecutive seasons. "We’re still looking for that one huge game where we can dominate and score four or five goals. Some games, we get 10 chances and score only one or two goals. But I know we can explode.

"There are a lot of expectations on us in the playoffs. Everybody wants to see if we can play good."

Retired NHL veteran Ray Ferraro, a teammate of Demitra’s in St. Louis, thinks it will happen.

"I don’t think the intensity of the playoffs will bother them," Ferraro said. "They’ve given the Wild a dimension they haven’t had in the past, and that’s the ability to score off the rush.

"These guys clearly love playing with each other. I think they’ll be dangerous for Anaheim."

Gaborik sure is ready.

"Sometimes I think about what it would be like to bring a Stanley Cup back home and I imagine that," Gaborik said, smiling. "It would be a lot of fun, all the people around, the celebrations, just holding the Cup, and having a ring. I try to envision that sometimes. I really hope it comes true."

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