Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Michael Grabner did what comes naturally. He picked off a defenseman on an Islanders penalty kill, sprinted up the ice, deked backhand-to-forehand and did a fist pump after burying on Henrik Lundqvist. The goal was huge for the Islanders, putting them up 2-0 on the archrival Rangers, but even bigger for Grabner, who busted out of the longest scoring drought of his career.
“I forgot what it felt like to score goals,” Grabner said after the game. “It was nice to get the first one there. Obviously if you’re getting chances you’re doing something right, just the last little bit wasn’t there.”
He added an empty netter, effectively sealing the 5-3 win. Afterward the two- goal performance, Grabner talked about taking the offensive pressure off the top line, but he’s also taken the pressure off himself.
“It’s been the longest drought I’ve had in my career so it’s nice that it’s finally over,” he said. “I have to keep it up.”
Grabner found the back of the net again three days later against Detroit, as a Josh Bailey pass caromed off of Red Wings defenseman Brenden Smith and landed on Grabner’s stick; without hesitation, he fired the puck top corner from the slot.
With three goals in his last three games, the former 34-goal scorer looks poised and confident with the puck, but his turnaround may be credited to his play without it.
Head coach Jack Capuano asked his team to play with intensity and Grabner responded, adding a physical element to his game.Towards the end of his funk, Grabner used his speed to throw his body, separate opponents from the puck and take out frustrations on the other team. He threw a team-high seven hits in the Islanders 1-0 OT loss to Montreal on Dec. 14, on the same roster as the two reigning NHL hits leaders, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck.
“We’ve all noticed that he’s playing physical and he’s playing hard on pucks,” Capuano said. “Your work ethic dictates the scoreboard, but as an individual, the harder you work and stay with it, good things are going to happen.”
Grabner isn’t taking over the league lead in hits, but he has registered 23 body checks in his last seven games, compared to 16 hits in 45 games in 2012-13. His style isn’t changing, but rather is evolving. Against the Rangers on Friday night, Grabner had five hits in addition to his two goals.
“Through this stretch he was on, it’s easy to look at his stats and easy to say he hasn’t been producing, but he has,” Capuano said. “He’s been doing a lot of good things and I’m pleased he finally got rewarded for that.”
Grabner’s hard work is also reigniting the second line and providing the Islanders with scoring depth. Frans Nielsen broke out of a scoring slump on a two-on-one dish from Grabner against Tampa Bay on Dec. 17, which kicked off a four-game point streak (two goals and two assists) for the Dane.
“We know how fast he is and how tough he is to handle when he is using his feet and finishing his hits,” Neilsen said. “You can see his confidence.”
Bailey, his opposite winger, also has assists in three straight games, while Grabner has points in three of four. The Islanders have scored three goals or more in their last three games, winning two of them.
As the stats catch up to Grabner's play, Capuano wants the winger to continue translating his speed into hard, physical play.
So for the suddenly hot, lightning-quick goal scorer - keep throwing the body.
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