The Mental Game of Michael Grabner’s Breakaways
UNIONDALE, NY — After 13 games of this shortened NHL season, the Islanders’ speedy winger Michael Grabner has five goals, two of which have come on his patented breakaway chances. Despite a small four-game cold snap, that’s a pace that puts him just a shade over thirty goals during a normal 82-game season, something the Islanders and their fans would love to see out of the Austrian.
Despite an early season abdominal injury that almost kept Grabner out of the abbreviated training camp, he looks as fast as ever and it seems as if he’s been able to get a solid breakaway chance in most games. Last night’s game at Madison Square Garden was no exception, as Grabner almost singlehandedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the very end of overtime.
It looked for a moment like the Rangers could earn the extra point, as Rick Nash was left alone and fed Michael Del Zotto in front of the net. Fortunately, Del Zotto missed well wide of the net. As the puck came back out towards the blueline, Grabner fought off a Ranger forward, then defender Marc Staal, to earn a clear breakaway on goal with only seconds remaining. Behind the play but still in pursuit, Staal took three good hacks at Grabner — two in a rather unpleasant area — which was enough of a distraction to cause him to misfire the puck.
Looking back on it today after practice, Grabner didn’t have any concerns about the non-call.
“I usually don’t really complain about referees. It happens so quick out there, they see it from the angle maybe where they can’t see everything,” Grabner said, not assigning blame for the non-call on the zebras. “Even if I complain about it at the end or say it should have been a penalty or a penalty shot, they’re not gonna change it. For me, I should have tried to get a better shot off.”
Part of Grabner’s ability to create breakaway chances comes from his time on special teams, playing up top on the four-man unit. Even with one less player on the ice, he’s got an uncanny ability to pick off passes from opponents at the top of the zone, and is gone down the ice in an instant. Whether that’s a learned trait or is something more natural that is part of his DNA is up for debate; even Grabner himself isn’t convinced either way.
“It’s a little bit of both [learned and instinct],” he said after pausing a brief moment. “I’m just trying to read what’s going to happen or where they’re maybe going to pass, but it’s tough. When you’re short someone’s always going to be open.”
Specifically, Grabner cites an almost mental game of pressure and rushing his opponents as a way to create shorthanded opportunities, rather than with his quick feet.
“The biggest thing is trying to have them make a decision as quick as possible and not give them time and space to think about it,” said Grabner. “There are some great players in the league, especially on the power play, who are going to make some passes if you give them the time. You try to eliminate that and rush on them.”
Grabner wasn’t addressing this moment specifically, but that sounds like an accurate description of the sort of thing he did to Ilya Kovalchuk of the Devils went they visited the Coliseum a few Sundays ago.
With the Devils on the powerplay, New Jersey’s star had to corral the puck high in the zone along the boards. Kovalchuk opted to try and keep the puck in the zone rather than choosing a safer, albeit not appetizing, route of backing out and starting the play over. Kovalchuk forced a pass to the other point man which was picked off instantly by Grabner.
He’s been an integral part of the penalty killing unit for most of his three years on Long Island, and continues to be so despite less time on the ice last night. Grabner played only nine and a half minutes, nearly half of some of his ice totals from early on in the season.
Today coach Capuano said that was “a little bit by deisgn.” Capuano emphasized he wanted more physical play, which created more playing time for other lines and less for Grabner.
“I talked to Michael about his game a little bit,” the coach said speaking in specifics about his winger. “I just felt like the lines we had going were going. You gotta go with your gut feeling. He was an integral part on the 4-on-4 for us and special teams on the kill as well. He’ll be better.”
Looking towards tomorrow’s game against New Jersey, Grabner was comfortable with his role and ready to take on the next opponent, with perhaps a chance to change the results. Last time the Devils visited, he couldn’t convert on the steal from Kovalchuk and the Islanders were shut out in front of the home crowd.
“For me, I don’t think my role changed,” he said. “I still play the PK, try to do my job there, try to get some offense going with ‘Coiner and and I don’t know who’s going to be on the wing tomorrow, maybe Ully.”
The goalie in net for New Jersey last time wasn’t veteran all-star Martin Brodeur, but rather backup Johan Hedberg who has had success against the Islanders recently and stoned Grabner on that breakaway.
“[Hedberg] had a good game against us last game,” Grabner recalled. “We need to get some pucks to the net early, get some traffic, and rattle him.”
If the breakaway opportunities continue the way they have for much of the season so far, Grabner may have a chance for a bit of redemption against Hedberg tomorrow night.