By Sean Hartnett
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Secondary scoring is a key ingredient for any NHL team that desires to be a contender. Take a glance at the teams that went deep in last season’s playoffs. To be the cream of the crop, you’re going to need big-time contributions right down the line.
Colton Sissons stepped up to produce 12 points in 22 playoff games to help push the Nashville Predators into the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins earned consecutive titles not only because of their household names, but also because of emerging youngsters such as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. A four-line attack is an essential component that breeds success.
Rangers fans held their breath in late June, as the Vegas Golden Knights had the opportunity to steal away speedy scorer Michael Grabner through the expansion draft. Instead, Vegas general manager George McPhee opted to select 26-year-old center Oscar Lindberg. While a bottom-six pivot such as Lindberg provides versatility with his ability to play at center or on wing, Grabner’s lightning acceleration, scoring punch and penalty-killing prowess make him a rarer commodity.
The Golden Knights scratched Lindberg for Sunday’s meeting with the Los Angeles Kings after he went seven games without a point. He has contributed five goals and zero assists through his first 18 games with the Sin City club.
Frankly, the Rangers appear to have a better fit centering Lindberg’s vacated fourth line role in Boo Nieves. The 6-foot-3, 23-year-old seems to make an impact even when he isn’t scoring because of the consistent physicality and speed element he brings.
The Rangers’ forward lines had a much different look in Sunday’s 3-0 home victory over the Ottawa Senators. J.T. Miller was shifted to the middle, Paul Carey was inserted into the lineup in place of David Desharnais. Coach Alain Vigneault rolled Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich on the first line, followed by Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast on the second line, Grabner, Miller and Mats Zuccarello on the third line and a fourth line comprised of Jimmy Vesey, Nieves and Carey.
Grabner played an influential role in the win. He doubled the Rangers’ lead at 4:52 of the third period by scoring on a nifty redirection and was credited with three hits. The 30-year-old wing led Rangers forwards with 3:58 spent on a penalty kill that successfully neutralized Ottawa’s three power-play opportunities, including a five-minute major that was assessed to Brendan Smith after the defenseman’s contact with Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki resulted in a game misconduct.
The Rangers’ penalty killers pressured and disrupted the Senators’ timing, and Grabner was a lead dog in using his aggressiveness and speed to force the Sens into mistakes and turnovers.
At the quarter-way mark of the season, Grabner is thriving in a bottom-six role. Those who follow the Rangers closely (including myself) believed that Grabner would struggle to match last season’s output of 27 goals and 40 points. But he could conceivably outdo that.
Grabner has collected nine points (eight goals, one assist) in his last 11 games. The quick-skating Austrian has tallied nine goals and two assists through 21 games. He’s currently on pace to finish the season with 35 goals, which would eclipse his previous career-high of 34 set in the 2010-11 season as a member of the rival Islanders.
When you add up what Grabner brings to the table, it’s a lot. His jet-like speed backs off opponents and forces them to grip their sticks a little tighter. In other words, his speed spooks opponents. He’s a regular goal-getter and crucial to the penalty kill’s success. That’s a tremendous value at a $1.65 million cap hit.
It’s easy to forget that Grabner contributed six points (four goals and two assists) in 12 playoff games last season. For both the immediate goal of climbing the Metropolitan Division ladder, where three points separate the seventh-place Rangers from first-place New Jersey and the ultimate goal that comes in the spring, Grabner has established himself as an important piece of the puzzle.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey