Isles' Michael Grabner in full flight against New Jersey
NEWARK -- One game into the season, a thoroughly unscientific, informal and unofficial evaluation of the 2013-14 Islanders might go something like this:
They certainly could use a full season of wing Michael Grabner's ability to repeatedly materialize with the puck on the dead run, as he did in last night's 4-3 shootout victory over the Devils.
A pair of flashing drives by the swift Grabner, steaming from the blue line to the net, produced the Islanders' first two goals at the team's most nervous moments.
He beat Martin Brodeur along the ice at 8:07 of the first period, with the Islanders down 1-0, and put a high shot past Brodeur on a similar breakaway at 13:43 of the second, after the Islanders had fallen behind 2-1. And it was Grabner's give-and-go return pass to Frans Nielsen that set up the Islanders' go-ahead goal early in the third period.
But the lead did not stand up. And when the shootout cycled into the sixth round without a goal, Grabner kidded that his turn "probably would have come right after Nabokov'' -- as in goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
"I didn't want to shoot,'' he said. "It seems easy, one-on-one with the goalie. But like you saw in the shootout, it's not that easy to score."
Still, the sight of Grabner, who turns 26 Saturday, setting off on high-speed forays into the attacking zone was an encouraging one for the Islanders, similar to the kind of threat the Austrian flyer presented when he came to the team as a free agent in 2010 and scored 34 goals.
He slipped to 20 in 2011-12 and scored 16 during last year's lockout-abbreviated schedule. On Friday night, his right-place-at-the-right-time presence, working with Nielsen and Josh Bailey, rendered them the most dangerous Islanders line.
John Tavares, already the team's center of gravity at 23, had four shots on goal -- two in the first 30 seconds -- and appeared to be missing the deft dog-whistle communication demonstrated in the past with longtime running mate Matt Moulson.
"I'm just trying to use my speed to get to some open ice," Grabner said. "It's not something I worked on specifically. It's always been there. I don't think I'm getting faster. Maybe maturing. Or maybe because they played already [Friday night's game was the second of back-to-back games for the Devils]."
The opening game after the lockout-shortened season didn't settle much, merely that the Islanders are one step closer to Brooklyn, not necessarily on the road to greatness.
Against the Devils, they had to be rescued more than once by Nabokov and Grabner. But whatever that foretells cannot yet be certain.