On the night before Halloween, in front of a costumed, festive crowd at Madison Square Garden, a hat trick was the treat for Rangers forward Michael Grabner.
“I don’t remember my last one,” said the former Islander, who signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers during the summer. “I think it was against Buffalo, don’t know the year, but it’s nice to get another one.”
Grabner, who helped propel the Blueshirts to a 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night, was right about the team. It was Feb. 13, 2011, against the Sabres, and he scored the winner in overtime.
It wasn’t as dramatic against the Lightning: His last two goals — in the third period — gave the Rangers a 6-0 lead in a game that seemed all but finished after the second period. The Blueshirts scored four times in the second, including three in a span of 2:19.
Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta (31 saves) lost his bid for a shutout with 3:24 left.
The speed and the finish by Grabner were impressive, as were the contributions by his new linemates: center Kevin Hayes, who had three assists and played his best game of the season, and right wing J.T. Miller, with a goal and two assists. The trio had a total of nine points.
Why did that trio work? “He’s always got that speed element, backing the defense off . . . which helps make room for Haysie and I,” Miller said. “I try to get in and [play physical] and he is up in the play trying to get loose pucks. I think tonight he showcased that really well.”
“They’re great players,” said Grabner, who has five goals after scoring nine for the Maple Leafs last season. “I just tried to use my speed to open up some room for them, and tonight, we had a lot of chances as a line. I think we could have had a couple more [goals].”
There was never a doubt that Grabner, 29, could score. The Austrian winger had 54 goals in two seasons (2010-11 and 2011-12) with the Islanders before being used mainly as a fourth-liner and penalty-killer.
One of the more remarkable things Sunday night? The flurry of shots (37) and scoring against the 6-7 Ben Bishop, who had a career .940 save percentage against the Rangers. “Breakaway after breakaway after two-on-one. Not even the best goalies in the world are going to bail you out of that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
The first period was scoreless, and the turnaround came in the second.
After a turnover forced by Nick Holden, Rick Nash scooped up a loose puck, raced in alone and fired top shelf over Bishop’s glove from 15 feet for a 1-0 lead at 4:45.
Grabner’s first goal came on a pinpoint pass from Brady Skjei to the right circle at 6:42 to make it 2-0. Tampa Bay challenged, arguing for goaltender interference, but the goal stood.
Jimmy Vesey capped the surge at 7:04 on a pass from Nash, who has seven goals and 12 points in 13 games against the Lightning as a Ranger. The goal was Vesey’s fifth.
The Rangers scored their fourth goal when Hayes’ wrister hit Bishop in the logo and Miller jammed in the rebound at 18:10.
In the third, after Ryan McDonagh blocked a shot, Miller’s lead pass found Grabner, who fired high glove side at 6:42. He finished the hat trick at 14:47 on another pass from Hayes.