By Sean Hartnett
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Since recovering from a hip injury, Michael Grabner has showed why he’s made a crucial difference in his first season as a Ranger.
The 29-year-old speedster has recorded three points in two games since returning to the lineup.
All season, opponents have gotten the hiccups whenever the dangerous Austrian has hovered in advance of striking with the quickness of a cobra. Like countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger in his box office heyday, Grabner has been the Blueshirts’ all-action hero.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it,” a Schwarzennger-portrayed Dutch Schaefer said in the 1987 sci-fi smash “Predator.” When Grabner is on the ice, he becomes the hunter. His second-period goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday was another example of why opponents are never comfortable when he’s on the ice. Grabner pressured Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison to back skate and cough up the puck. In an instant, Grabner gained possession and beat goaltender Peter Budaj.
After a snakebitten campaign last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Grabner declared “I’ll be back.” The Rangers took a low-risk gamble by inking him to a two-year, $1.65 million AAV contract on the first day of free agency. It has turned out to be a tremendous investment as Grabner has 27 goals in 64 games this season.
Few expected him to be the Rangers’ goal-scoring leader after he potted just nine goals in 80 games last season in Toronto and finished with a career-low shooting percentage of 7.8. However, his accuracy has jumped up to Terminator-like precision this season. Among skaters to take at least 100 shots, Grabner ranks sixth in the NHL with a 19.3 shooting percentage, mostly because he’s benefiting from the creativity of linemates Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller.
“I’m getting into better scoring positions than I was in past years,” Grabner said in February. “Maybe I was shooting pucks from the outside more in past years. Now, I get more better looks at the net. Playing with Hayesie and Miller has been really good for me. They’re great players off the puck, so I just try to find some space, and they’ve been finding me.”
While Hayes and Miller have been doing their part by finding Grabner in Grade-A scoring areas, No. 40’s speed has played an instrumental role in his linemates’ productivity. It’s the kind of speed that forces opposing defenses to back off. This creates time and space for Hayes and Miller to operate.
“What you see is what you get,” Miller said. “He’s so fast that people don’t think he’s there, then all of a sudden he is. He’s really good at making reads and getting himself opportunities to get shorthanded goals and odd-man breaks. He’s playing to his strengths, he’s waiting for opportunities and not forcing anything. When he senses the other team might be tired, he can get a step on them.”
Leading up to the trade deadline, there was some talk from writers and fans about the usefulness of trading Grabner at the peak of his value to gain assets that could help the Rangers over the long term. But this franchise’s goal is Total Recall of 1994. If Henrik Lundqvist is ever going to get his mitts on Lord Stanley, he’s going to need a strong supporting cast which almost certainly needs to include Grabner and his game-changing speed. That means all hands on deck and no time for selling off win-now pieces from their Stanley Cup puzzle.
As mentioned in Tuesday’s column, if the Rangers finish in the top wild card spot, they will stay on the Atlantic side of the playoff bracket and, thus, their road to the Eastern Conference finals would be considerably easier. In that scenario, the Blueshirts would need to go through two of the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, should the trio finish 1-2-3 in the Atlantic.
See you at the party, Richter? Maybe.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey