BRATISLAVA — Marian Gaborik wore an A on his sweater a No. 38 for Pavol Demitra on his helmet and he led the Rangers out onto the ice ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. He received a loud ovation from the soldout crowd at Slovnaft Arena each time his name was announced prior to the opening faceoff.
This was Gaborik’s night in his home country only an hour from his hometown. As much as he wanted to soak in the love and honor his late friend and teammate, he wanted to win the game.
He got his wish.
After a sluggish first period that was largely a result of travel, Gaborik and his road weary teammates found their legs and never looked back en route to a 4-1 victory over HC Slovan. Gaborik was credited with an assist on the Rangers first goal and Henrik Lundqvist allowed only the one goal for his second straight win.
“It was pretty exciting and special to come back here and play,” said Gaborik, who had an assist on the Rangers first goal. “The atmosphere was unbelievabele.”
As much as Gaborik wanted to hang around after the game, he didn’t get much of a chance.
The Rangers, who woke up Sunday in Sweden and played in Slovakia, will go to bed in Switzerland.
They fly to Zurich Sunday night to play EV Zug on Monday. The Rangers open the regular season Friday in Stockholm against the Los Angeles Kings. It’s one of four games in the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere.
“It’s getting close,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
Slovan opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the first period, but the Rangers scored three unanswered goals in the second to seize control of the game.
Mats Zuccarello scored on a 5-on-3 with 13:57 to play in the second and Brian Boyle gave New York the lead with a goal just 59 seconds later. Shortly before the second period was done, Artem Anisimov cashed in with a shorthanded goal thanks to some aggressive forechecking by Brandon Prust to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead heading into the second intermission.
Ryan McDonagh added a goal off a wrister from between the circles halfway through the third period.
“That team came out and in this situation, all the teams we’re playing here want to beat us to say they beat a National Hockey League team,” Tortorella said. “After that first period we had the puck more and the power play helped.”
Gaborik, who is from nearby Trencin, predicted it would be an emotional pseudo-homecoming for him both because of all the friends and family he had in the stands, but also because the last time he played in Slovnaft Arena, it was Demitra’s final game with the Slovakian national team.
Gaborik and Demitra, who died in the KHL plane crash, were close friends and the Rangers’ right wing couldn’t help but see the memorial to his buddy above the concourse entrance in section B10 of the arena. It’s a blown up portrait shot of Demitra with “R.I.P. #38” written across his chest.
Gaborik also paid tribute by wearing a No. 38 helmet decal.
The in-house scoreboard camera focused on Gaborik during the U.S. and Slovakian anthems, and he had his head down and was breathing heavy.
It clearly looked like he was overcome by the emotions.
“I was thinking about (Demitra) during the anthems,” Gaborik said. “It was an emotional moment.”
The Rangers showed their tired legs in the first period, when HC Slovan controlled the play and held a 12-6 advantage in shots on goal. Ivan Svarny gave the home team a 1-0 lead 8:42 into the game with a power-play goal.
The Rangers were nearly in big trouble later in the period when Steve Eminger and Brian Boyle had overlapping minor penalties. However, they killed off both, including 21 seconds of 5-on-3 time for Slovan, and headed into the dressing room with a bit of momentum.
“We talked after the first period that that was our morning skate,” Lundqvist said. “We got going after that.”
Slovan gave the Rangers their chance when Martin Stajnoch and David Skokan went to the box together at 4:56 with respective hooking and interference penalties.
Brad Richards set up Zuccarello for a game-tying one-timer from the lower part of the right circle. Richards initially was given the lone assist on the power-play goal, but prior to the start of the third period they added a second assist for Gaborik.
Shortly after the Rangers power play expired, Dan Girardi found Boyle all alone in the low slot with a pretty feed from the right circle. Boyle quickly tapped the puck past Slovan goalie Branislav Konrad to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead just 59 seconds after Zuccarello tied it up.
With his team on a power play late in the period, new Slovan goalie Patrick Galbraith’s attempt to leave the puck for one of his defenseman was broken up by a forechecking Prust. He picked up the puck behind the goal and set up Anisimov for a shorthanded goal from in front of the crease with 2:22 to play in the second.
Ryan Callahan used his speed down the right wing to set up McDonagh for the insurance goal at 10:11 of the third.
Gaborik, who was trying to catch up with his friends and family in the few moments he had after the game, clearly looked relieved the Rangers woke up.
“It was good to play here and wear an A for the New York Rangers,” Gaborik said. “It was good we got a win, too.”