Islanders' Grabner finally a danger again
CHICAGO -- The breakaway numbers are too many to count for Michael Grabner. In the last three games, he's had roughly 10, if you count the one in the first period Tuesday in Buffalo when he wiped out in center ice before getting to a loose puck.
That Grabner has converted only one of those breakaways, a shorthanded game-winner in the third period to beat the Devils a week ago, is troubling, but a bit beside the point.
Grabner is returning to the form he displayed in his breakout 2010-11 season, when he was a threat to score every time on the ice and a disruption to opposing teams' breakout plays, either with the Islanders at even strength or on the penalty kill.
As with many other aspects of the Islanders' overall game, Grabner's takeaway / breakaway threat was missing the first six weeks of the season, but he's starting to find his game.
"I don't think anybody expected the start we had. Even when we won three games [out of the first four], we weren't playing the way we needed to," Grabner said before Friday night's game with the Blackhawks. "I think we have a little more focus, we're playing the system better and we're playing better D."
Having allowed three or more goals in a remarkable 15 consecutive games, during which their record was 2-10-3, the Islanders have settled down their shaky defensive-zone play the last three games and been helped by a quicker transition to offense.
That's especially true when Grabner is on the ice, either killing penalties with Frans Nielsen or with Nielsen and Kyle Okposo at even strength. With Grabner hounding the puck carrier and a threat to steal it and cruise in alone, the opposition hasn't had the confidence to storm through the neutral zone it had during that miserable 15-game stretch.
"It's been a lot of guys -- Fransie's line, Moulson, Josh [Bailey], to name a few -- that have brought an energy that maybe we didn't have for a while," coach Jack Capuano said. "With a guy like Grabs and all the breakaways he's had off turnovers, their D has to respect that and back off a bit, which gives our guys some more time and room to make plays."
It's hard for anyone to explain where the explosiveness was for the first 19 games. Grabner has seven goals, tied for second on a team that has had trouble scoring, so he's about in line to where he should be relative to his teammates.
He, Nielsen and Okposo were "not on the same page," according to Grabner, at the start of the season. Okposo was benched for a week and Grabner went to the right side of Moulson and John Tavares for a stretch. When Okposo returned 10 days ago, the Grabner-Nielsen-Okposo line reunited and they've been generating chance after chance since.
Notes & quotes: D Andrew MacDonald (leg) sat out the game and Dylan Reese made his season debut.