TORONTO — In a span of three minutes, Michael Grabner may have made the Maple Leafs regret not re-signing him.
Thursday morning — before the 29-year-old wing locked up the Rangers’ 5-2 win with his first shorthanded goal of the season and an empty-netter — Leafs coach Mike Babcock said his club really wanted the speedy Austrian back.
Grabner, who had nine goals and 18 points in 80 games last season, has 21 goals and eight assists in 45 games in 2016-17. His speed drew two penalties Thursday night.
“He was snake-bitten for us, but he’s got his confidence back,” Babcock said. “We would have loved to have kept him [instead of letting him seek free agency], but we felt with the wingers we had, one of these kids wouldn’t have gotten any ice time. He was a guy we could really count on. [Assistant coach] D.J. Smith, who runs the penalty kill, was begging us to keep him.”
Said J.T. Miller, “He’s been one of our best players all season. The shorthander on Haysie’s [Kevin Hayes] pass had everybody on the bench up.”
Staal will play when ready
Rangers coach Alain Vig neault did not rule out the possibility that Marc Staal will return during the three games with Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia before the All-Star break next Thursday. Staal, who missed his sixth game while recovering from concussion symptoms, skated Wednesday and Thursday. “I’ll give you the same answer I gave on Nasher [Rick Nash],” Vigneault said before the game. “As soon as they tell me they’re good to go, they’re going to play. A player like Marc, with what he brings to our team, I’ll put him in the lineup as soon as he’s healthy.”
The Rangers have had issues with protecting the area in front of Henrik Lundqvist, and having Staal — a physical, defense-first player who is a plus-10, the second-highest among the seven defensemen — can’t hurt.
Defenseman Brady Skjei (goal, assist, plus-3 in 15:29) was impressive. It was the second multi-point game of his rookie season . . . Kevin Hayes had two assists and six shots on goal . . . With his goal, Pavel Buchnevich extended his point streak to four games (two goals, four assists).