GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It might seem absurd, considering he skates like an express train at rush hour, but New York Rangers forward Michael Grabner insists he hasn't always been the fastest player on his team.
He just has to go back 17 years to remember the last time he wasn't. That was also when he began to develop the speed he uses to burn forwards and defensemen in the NHL.
"When I was 12 I'd practice with 16-year-olds so I wasn't the fastest," Grabner said, "but you try to keep up with those kids and you don't really think, you just want to keep up. I didn't work on my speed or have any personal coaches, but it just helped that I was playing with older guys and trying to keep up. It helped me build my speed."
Grabner also dabbled in track and field as a teenager growing up in Villach, Austria. He was a sprinter, specializing in the 60-meter dash. He competed in the long jump as well.
"I never really thought about it, though," Grabner said. "I just ran."
Now he just skates, and he's blowing away the expectations he and the Rangers had for him.
Video: NSH@NYR: Grabner roofs Hayes' dish from in close
Grabner has 26 goals in 56 games going into the Rangers' game against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, NHL.TV). He had 29 goals in 178 games in the previous three seasons, including nine in 80 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015-16.
He is tied for eighth in goals this season with Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who has won the Maurice Richard Trophy four seasons in a row.
Grabner has scored before; he had 75 goals in his first 219 NHL games, including 34 with the New York Islanders in 2010-11, his full first season. But considering his nine goals last season, offense wasn't the reason the Rangers signed him to a two-year contract on July 1, 2016.
"I thought we were getting a guy that obviously could help us on the penalty-killing, and theoretically when you make up your lines in the summer you say, 'This guy is probably on the fourth line and if someone doesn't do well he could step up,' " Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "That's where we had him slotted."
Grabner is now slotted on the left wing of what has become the Rangers' most productive line with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. Miller leads New York with 46 points (18 goals, 28 assists) and Hayes, despite missing five games, is tied for second with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists).
Grabner leads the Rangers in goals -- and breakaways.
Video: NYR@TOR: Grabner motors in for SHG on breakaway
"When I had him in Van [Vancouver as a rookie in 2009-10] and we played him in a playoff series, he scared the defensemen with that speed," Vigneault said. "I knew we were getting that; I didn't know we were going to get the consistent goal scoring that we've gotten. He's got a swagger."
Grabner said his uptick in production this season compared to last season correlates with his soaring confidence. He feels better with the puck on his stick, largely because he scored early in the season, two goals in the first three games, in fact.
He also scored a hat trick against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 30 and had seven goals in 15 games in November. He has 12 goals in 17 games since Jan. 4.
"When you get a couple goals early in the season, it just makes it a lot easier when you go out there and get a chance," Grabner said.
Grabner had scoring chances with the Maple Leafs last season similar to the kind he's getting with the Rangers, with his speed, off breakaways and dominant even-strength shifts. They didn't go in, early or late. He never found his confidence.
"Every time I got a chance I was maybe overthinking it, taking too long or shooting too quickly," he said. "This year I just react out there and go by my instincts."
Grabner laughed when asked if he expected 26 goals already. Nope. But he's not surprised he is scoring consistently. He had done it in the past. All he needed to do it again was opportunity and linemates who could work with him and use his speed to everyone's advantage.
"I just found some chemistry with Hayes and Miller," Grabner said.
Or maybe it should be they found chemistry with him, because they had to adjust to his speed.
Video: NYR@PHI: Miller, Grabner combine to pad Rangers' lead
"He opens up a lot of plays," Miller said. "Teams can either respect his speed and that makes room for me and [Hayes], or not respect his speed and he's open. It's however they want to play it."
Miller said the line has one strict rule.
"As soon as we get possession, I told him I want him to go, get out of the zone," Miller said.
Because he's so fast, Grabner ends up either behind the defense if they gap up, meaning he's open for the home-run pass leading to a breakaway, or pushing the defense back to open space for Hayes, Miller and his own defensemen.
"He's not even cheating, either," Hayes said. "He's just that fast."