Grabner’s hat trick in win over Lightning latest impact on deeper Rangers


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Michael Grabner beats Ben Bishop for his third career hat trick in a Rangers’ 6-1 win over the Lightning Sunday night. He’s tied for the team lead with five goals giving the Rangers more offensive balance this season. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy MSG Networks.

The one night where my family couldn’t attend a game I wouldn’t have minded seeing, the Rangers absolutely dominated the Lightning winning big by the count of 6-1 at MSG Sunday night. They were led by Michael Grabner, who recorded his third career hat trick. The other two came with the Islanders when he once scored over 30 goals as a rookie.

It was the third line featuring Grabner with Kevin Hayes (3 assists) and J.T. Miller (goal, two assists) that did most of the damage. Rick Nash also had a strong game recording his fourth goal and assist.

Jimmy Vesey continued to impress scoring his fifth of the season. The 23-year old Harvard grad is looking more and more like an early Calder candidate. He’ll get strong competition from Maple Leafs’ top overall pick Auston Matthews, his line mate William Nylander, Winnipeg second overall pick Patrik Laine and the Blue Jackets’ 2015 first round pick Zach Werenski. The Flyers’ Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov also should be in the mix along with Leafs’ center Mitchell Marner.

Ryan McDonagh continued his brilliant play recording an assist for the seventh straight game. The longest such streak by a Ranger defenseman since Brian Leetch. The captain is back to the high level that saw him dominate during ’13-14 when he was at his best. It was during the 2014 playoffs that he took apart the team that drafted him in a six-game series win over Montreal with 11 points- helping lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994. He finished the postseason with 17 points (4-13-17).

It is the play of the number one defenseman that will be crucial to the Rangers’ season. As he goes, so will they. He’s clearly the best player anchoring a blue line that still includes vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Both of who have been better. Perhaps the time off helped as they have looked healthier.

However, it’s still not a team strength. We’ve seen Staal and partner Kevin Klein struggle at times. Girardi can still commit the awful turnover or get beaten by faster players. Nick Holden is turnover prone but remains a favorite of coach Alain Vigneault. He did pick up a primary assist on the second goal last night. But one wonders if Adam Clendening will see the ice soon? Hopefully, it doesn’t become another McIlrath situation.

Rookie Brady Skjei continues to develop well. He picked up an assist and was a plus-one in 24 shifts including 14:01 at even strength and received 2:01 on the power play. An area that the smooth skating defenseman could excel at given his instincts. He’s a good skater and defensively responsible enough to be tried on the man-advantage. Especially if Vigneault is going to bury Clendening, who was used on the point in five games.

Antti Raanta was strong in his second start. He finished with 31 saves, coming oh so close to the team’s first shutout. Coming home from a get together for a friend’s 30th birthday party which was fun, it sounded like Raanta made some good stops in a scoreless first period. If not for a late Steven Stamkos power play goal in which he got a fortunate bounce on a nice passing play from Nikita Kucherov, who played and Anton Stralman, Raanta gets the shutout.

When we got home, I was exhausted from work and the four hour get together. Justin put on the World Series. Our focus was on our buddy’s Cubs, who staved off elimination in a thrilling 3-2 win over the Indians. I gotta admit I’ve really been into it. It’s not every October that you get two teams who haven’t won in so long. The baseball has been compelling. Three of the five games have gone down to the wire. Seeing Aroldis Chapman get the final eight outs was pretty cool.

As we were watching, the Rangers erupted with a four goal barrage on Ben Bishop in the second. That included three goals in less than a three-minute span. Nash got his fourth from Holden. Then Grabner put in a Skjei rebound. Twenty-two seconds later, Vesey took a nice Nash backhand pass and beat Bishop with a wrist shot for a 3-0 lead. Miller would add a goal late in the period from Hayes and Girardi.

Grabner’s second came on a clean breakaway from Miller and McDonagh. He snapped one past Bishop. He completed the hat trick with 5:13 left from Hayes and Miller. That third line with Grabner, Hayes and Miller combined for four goals and five assists totaling nine points. The trio each went plus-four dominating the game. Yesterday, he spoke with MSG’s Amanda Borges on his big night:

When GM Jeff Gorton signed him during the summer, I liked the move. But wondered how many goals Grabner would score. His scoring had dramatically fallen off from his breakout ’10-11 with the Islanders when he put in a career best 34 goals with 52 points. He hit 20 the following season. His goal totals decreased to 16, 12 and 8 with the Islanders as his role dropped off. He went 9-9-18 with the Leafs in 80 contests last season. This year, he’s getting the chance to play with better line mates. It’s paid off so far. He enters Tuesday’s game against St. Louis with five goals and an assist in nine games.

It’s definitely nice to see Gorton’s additions contributing. Brandon Pirri has four goals while Vesey has five. Mike Zibanejad is 2-6-8 so far. I’m surprised he hasn’t finished more. He’s had a lot of chances. Figure him to get hot soon. Meanwhile, Miller continues to flourish on whatever line he plays with- quietly leading the team in scoring with nine points (3-6-9). The silly idea of trading him even it’s for D help would be a mistake. He’s too valuable and on a good contract. Only 23, he continues to improve.

When the season began, scoring was going to improve due to the depth. It’s come to fruition. The Rangers lead the NHL in offense averaging 3.89 goals-per-game. Offense is up so far with 11 teams averaging at least three goals each game. Boasting four balanced lines that can contribute offense has helped the Blueshirts get off to a 6-3-0 start. Their goal differential is plus-13 with 35 goals for and 22 goals against. The best in the Metropolitan Division.

While other teams have struggled offensively including the Caps, offense is the Rangers’ strength. As predicted, their speed, skill and skating exposed the Lightning, who played for the third time in four nights. Even with getting Kucherov back, they were severely outplayed.

The Rangers have the ability to do that to any opponent. The less time they spend in their zone, the better off they’ll be. They get the Blues again later. They lost 3-2 to their back up Carter “E.F.” Hutton. It’ll probably be Jake Allen this time. Henrik Lundqvist gets the start.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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