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Hartnett: Grabner Finds Success, Renewed Confidence With Rangers

By Sean Hartnett
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A change of scenery has made all the difference for Rangers winger Michael Grabner. After being snakebitten last season in Toronto, the 29-year-old found instant success in the Big Apple, and he isn't cooling off.

This season, Grabner has scored 22 goals through 49 games. At an even 21 percent, his shooting percentage is well above his 12.7 percent career average. Among skaters who have taken over 100 shots this season, he only trails Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele in shooting accuracy.

Grabner is currently on pace to finish the season with 36 goals, which would set a new career high. Among players to skate in 15 or more games, his 1.95 goals per 60 minutes is only bettered by Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.

The speed-burning Austrian leads the NHL with 21 even-strength goals and is the only player in the league to record 20 goals while posting a plus/minus rating of plus-20 or better. Twenty-nine of his 30 points have either been a goal or a primary assist.

Grabner has provided game-changing speed for the Rangers. Back in November, head coach Alain Vigneault said, "Grabs' speed probably scares the opposition a little bit." The 6-foot-1 winger is constantly getting stick on puck to break up opposition plays and starting counter-attack opportunities. His speed is dangerous in transition, and he's been tormenting goalies by jetting in on breakaways and finishing with pinpoint accuracy.

"What you see is what you get," linemate J.T. 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."

MORE: Hartnett: It's Time For Rangers To Give Clendening A Serious Look

For Grabner, the biggest difference is his surging confidence.

"Obviously, it's better," Grabner said. "Last year, I think in the beginning of the year, it wasn't as high and I started to get it back a bit – especially towards the end. Now, it's pretty good. We have a lot of fast players and good skaters on this team. We try to play a quick, north-south game. I think that's why they brought me here. That's been my game since I've been drafted and why I made it into this league. It's nice to be able to play like this again. I'm always trying to close time and make decisions a little quicker. There's a lot of smart players in this league. If you give them time, they're going to find the lanes and the open man. I just try to get my stick in the way and try to pressure them. I like to frustrate the top guys. That's a big part of today's game."

Playing on a line mostly with Miller and Kevin Hayes, the trio has developed excellent chemistry, and Grabner is getting a strong supply of Grade-A chances on his stick.

"I'm getting into better scoring positions than I was in past years," Grabner said. "Maybe I was shooting pucks from the outside more in past years. Now, I get more better looks at the net. Playing with Haysie 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."

MORE: Hartnett: Vigneault Every Bit Worthy Of Contract Extension

In addition to needing to think fast on the ice, Grabner has to be quick-witted when he joins Miller and defenseman Nick Holden in carpools to games and practices. Instead of fiddling through radio stations, the teammates engage in endless banter.

"We drive into every game and a lot of practices together because we live so close," Miller said. "Me, him and Holden ride in together all the time. We chirp each other all day long and try to see who can be funnier. It's constant fun and games, and it's good to have that away from the rink. It's whoever can two-on-one the guy by himself. You've got to find a teammate early in the car ride, or you're going to be the one getting bullied and made fun of the whole way. It's fun, though. It keeps us on our toes and makes every day different."

"If you could film our car rides, you'd probably have a good TV series," Grabner said. "We try to get over on one guy usually. Usually, that's not me. We always drive together, and it's fun. It's another big thing about our group here. We're a close group. Everyone likes everyone and is joking around."

On the ice and off the ice, Grabner is feeling comfortable in his first season with the Rangers. His electric speed and expertise on the penalty kill has filled two big offseason needs. That two-year, $3.2 million contract he signed on July 1 is looking like quite the bargain.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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