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Coyotes’ Grabner goes from healthy scratches to Game 1’s deciding goal

Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (74) is scored against by Arizona Coyotes' Michael Grabner (40) during second-period NHL hockey Stanley Cup qualifying round game action in Edmonton, Alberta, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Playoff hockey is going to ask all players to step up and make plays throughout the postseason if a deep run for a team is in the making.

That goes from the All-Stars on the top lines to the guys clawing for any playing time they can get near the bottom.

The Arizona Coyotes had one of their first instances of this on Sunday with winger Michael Grabner in a Game 1 Stanley Cup Qualifying Round 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators.

A staple of the Coyotes’ bottom-six forwards in the 2018-19 season, Grabner brings the perfect balance of what you want out of that spot: speed, defense and a knack for scoring goals. Six of Grabner’s nine goals came shorthanded, which led the NHL despite him playing only 41 games after a horrifying season-ending eye injury.

This year, he worked through the post-recovery process of his left eye and the inconsistencies that can come with that. His trust with head coach Rick Tocchet faded, often earning a healthy scratch in the second half of the season.

Even upon the team returning, that included Grabner not playing in the team’s exhibition game against the Las Vegas Knights, and he at one point was considering opting out of the season.

“I’ve had a couple conversation with Grabs leading up to Phase 3. And I think, kind of like I said earlier, I think a lot of guys are focusing on what is going to be best for them and their family and keeping their family safe,” center Derek Stepan said on July 15. “I think Michael really wanted to play, Grabs really wanted to play, but he also wanted to keep his family safe. So it was a balancing act in his head, and I think he was really fighting it on his decision. But I think ultimately, he was weighing it all just on the safety of his family.”

So it was a surprise to see Grabner back for Game 1 in more ways than one on a line with Conor Garland and Barrett Hayton, two youngsters the 32-year-old could bring some experience to.

But it was not a surprise to see Grabner on the penalty kill, and him getting a breakaway on it also wasn’t.

Late in the second period with the Coyotes up 3-1, Grabner had a pass across the blue line hit right at him, and then he was off.

The lefty went to his signature speed and backhand finish to make it 4-1.

“I was just trying to read it when I’m coming in,” Grabner said. “Obviously we scout them a little bit before and know their tendencies, what they’re going to. I was just trying to read where he was trying to go with the puck, and it seemed like he was looking cross-ice for the most part.

“At the time, the puck was actually rolling a little bit. I kind of had to switch what I was going to do. I was going to shoot, and then I kind of had to change my mind. It probably helped me, to be honest. Glad it worked out at the end.”

That turned out to be a pivotal goal, as Nashville scored twice in the third period and would have tied it had Grabner not buried the shorty.

“It was huge. Obviously, we’re all very excited for him,” forward Christian Dvorak said. “Big goal for us.”

Grabner half-jokingly wouldn’t disclose when he knew he was playing.

“It’s none of your business when I get told when I’m in the lineup,” he said. “The coaches, they make the decisions. We have our routine here and whoever is in is gonna give it their best shot.”

Tocchet spoke of a close relationship he has with his veteran winger that makes him reliable.

“Grabs, he’s a pro. He’s a pleasure to coach in the sense that, yeah, he didn’t know if he was going to come until the last minute,” he said. “You know with the eye injury, it’s a tough injury for him. I had a good conversation a day or two — I’m not going to share what he said, but he’s just a great guy. Obviously that’s a huge goal for us. But he’s ready.

“Whether he plays one shift, he plays, or he doesn’t, he’s the ultimate team guy. The one thing I just feel bad is the eye injury, it’s just a tough one for him. But he came through. I can’t imagine playing basically with one eye and what he can do for us, too. His penalty-killing was outstanding for us.”

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