EDMONTON, Alberta — Michael Grabner wasn’t supposed to be on the top line. But with Chris Kreider sidelined with an upper-body injury that cropped up earlier in the day, Grabner joined Derek Stepan and Rick Nash against the Oilers on Sunday night, and the former Islander responded.
Grabner, signed as a free agent, scored his team-leading ninth and 10th goals of the season and Antti Raanta made 38 saves as the shorthanded Rangers beat the Oilers, 3-1.
The Rangers also played without another top winger, Pavel Buchnevich, who had a recurrence of back spasms during warmups, leaving 11 healthy forwards.
Already weary from playing a night earlier in a 4-1 victory over the Flames in Calgary, the Rangers celebrated their second straight win on this four-game trip. It certainly wasn’t easy, with the Blueshirts allowing their most shots on goal this season. They were outshot 39-27, including 26-15 in the final two periods.
“Regardless of what happened with the two forwards, we knew we had to grind it out, and when that happened, we knew we had to take that to another level, and the boys bought into it,” defenseman Marc Staal said.
On a strange day of twists and turns, the Rangers, via Raanta’s strong performance, lifted their record to 12-4. “Our goaltender was rock-solid,” Stepan said.
Coach Alain Vigneault said his strategy of juggling 11 forwards wasn’t witchcraft. “There’s no magic there,’’ he said. “I just played the guys who were fresh at the time.”
Grabner took advantage of the Oilers early, as several teams have done, scoring within the first two minutes for the fifth time in the last seven games. His unassisted goal in the second period provided a two-goal margin that the Blueshirts had to protect in the third, which they did for the second straight night.
The lineup for the rest of the trip is uncertain. It was unclear whether Kreider, who left here to be examined by team doctors, or Buchnevich, who was seen after the game, will be able to play in Vancouver on Tuesday night. “We should know in the next day or two [about Kreider],” Vigneault said. “If we need to call someone up, we’ll do it [Monday].’’
The Rangers essentially played three lines, with Brandon Pirri and Oscar Lindberg on ice less than 10 minutes apiece.
Adam Clendening, who dressed as a seventh defenseman, did not play at all. He was scheduled as a scratch, and “was coming to the building and didn’t have a warmup at all,’’ Vigneault said. “My plan was that if we ever got a power play, we were going to use him. We didn’t get one.”
In the first period, the Rangers took a 1-0 lead when no Oiler picked up Grabner, who was trailing a rush and potted a rebound at 1:20.
Moments later, Raanta stopped Zach Kassian on a breakaway, and the Oilers began rattling off a flurry of close-in scoring chances that continued until the final whistle.
Kevin Hayes threw a pass toward the crease that hit Dan Girardi’s skate and went past Cam Talbot at 13:18 for a 2-0 lead. Andrej Sekera deflected Connor McDavid’s shot past Raanta at 18:45 of the first.
Grabner struck for his second, intercepting a pass from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the Rangers’ blue line, racing down ice and reaching around Talbot to slide the puck across the line at 14:35 of the second.
“I didn’t see any space [to shoot], so I just deked and it went in,” Grabner said. “That’s the way it’s been going this year.”
Grabner, who has eight goals in his last eight games, trails Winnipeg rookie Patrik Laine (11 goals) by one for the league lead.