Another night at the office for the new J.T. Miller Tuesday.
Two assists, including the pass that directly led to the game’s most important goal; 19:45 of ice time, most among the Rangers’ forwards, including 3:38 worth of penalty kill as the Rangers were a perfect 4-for-4 in a 4-1 win over Anaheim.
Oh yeah, Miller very nearly had a shorthanded goal. His shot off linemate Kevin Hayes’ feed got behind Anaheim goalie John Gibson and somehow slipping through the crease and wide.
Miller putting his personal stamp on a game has become a theme this season, or at least since Dec. 27, when Rangers coach Alain Vigneault dished out his latest of several servings of “tough love” on his young, skilled forward with the big motor.
At that point, Miller had three points in 14 games and was – as he has always done, but is doing far less often – making questionable decisions with the puck. Vigneault demoted him to the fourth line for a game vs. Ottawa.
Message delivered and received.
“I knew I had to be better,” Miller said Tuesday.
“I mean, I went through a 15-20 game stretch where I wasn’t creating much. I was forcing plays, but you’ve got to go back and get a wake-up call. Coming into the locker room that morning, I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t complain. It’s hard at that point, but you’ve got to put your work boots on and try to get back to being simple. When that happens, things seem to open up, you get confidence and you get rolling.”
Two seasons ago, Vigneault commented that it would be up to Miller if he wants to be an NHL player, otherwise, the coach wryly adding, he will be a very good AHL player.
To his credit, Miller has responded to the coaching tactic that some players need.
“Obviously, it’s constructive criticism,” Miller said.
“Ever since he had me when I was younger, I knew it was probably better for me. Whether I wanted to hear it or not, in the long run – I mean, I definitely still have work to do on my game. It’s not perfect. I think he’s taught me a lot. He’s hard on his players. He expects his players to perform and play the right way and make that right play when you have a chance.”
“I definitely didn’t take it the wrong way. Maybe it’s easy to, but I understood it was for the right purposes.”
The former first-round pick (15th overall in 2011) turns 24 in March. With 29 games left, he has already set a career-high with 26 assists and is one short of his career-best 43 points. Last season, Vigneault trusted him enough to make Miller one of two Rangers (Keith Yandle was the other) to play all 82 games.
Miller earned a two-year contract with a $2.75 million cap hit per year and came into camp confident and ready. He said he had some goals he didn’t want to divulge, but that his main goal was consistency. Miller said he learned a ton from his stint with Team North America (a.k.a. the Young Guns) at the World Cup of Hockey in the summer, watching the elite talents like Conor McDavid, Auston Mathews and Jack Eichel, and how they prepare and play.
And since Dec. 27, he’s probably been the Rangers’ MVP.
Miller has seven assists in his last five games, and points in 14 of the last 16 (seven goals, 13 assists).
Before Tuesday, he had either scored or assisted on five consecutive Rangers game-winning goals.
The next night, when Hayes’ injury was announced, Miller – who slid to center in Hayes’ absence – made a steal and pass that resulted in a huge third-period goal by Zuccarello to beat the Los Angeles Kings.
Miller’s first assist Tuesday wasn’t on the winner, but it was on the third-period goal by Michael Grabner, during a 4-on-4 after the scrum that followed a big unpenalized against Derek Stepan, that was critical the way the Ducks were dictating play and the Rangers hanging on to a one-goal lead.
Miller then set up Grabner’s empty-netter, giving Grabner a team-leading 25 goals, which is also in no small part Miller’s doing. Miller and Hayes have become a lethal penalty-killing duo (they have combined for four short-handed goals, Miller’s three tied for the NHL lead, despite his near-miss Tuesday), and that line – the Rangers’ third line in name only – is the team’s best.
And by the way, the year the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup final (2014), their third line was their best – Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot.
Grabner said he’s come to expect Miller and Hayes to find him.
“Pretty much,” Grabner said. “He has great vision out there and it’s just easy for me to get open and try to use my speed, and try to let them make the plays. They obviously can score goals too, so (opponents) have to watch out for them.”
“From the start on, we had some chemistry. Sometimes that’s the way it goes, and we’ve been carrying it all year.”
The coach now regularly praises Miller, though Vigneault isn’t one to spout superlatives.
“There’s no doubt that what you like about J.T.,” Vigneault said, “is that he wants to be out there, wants to make a difference. Not only when he has the puck, but you talk about shot-blocking … (he is) one of our best forwards as far as getting into lanes and paying the price.”
“There’s no doubt that J.T., right now, is making a difference and he wants to make a difference. And that’s what you want from your players.”
Miller’s game is built for the playoffs, a combo of speed, skill, compete level and toughness. He’s eaten pucks in the defensive zone, delivered big hits, fought, and scored – while cutting down on the turnovers. No, he won’t be perfect. Good-to-great players aren’t afraid to take some chances.
Miller, who has become a go-to guy for reporters in the post-game locker room, doesn’t really seem comfortable talking about himself, though.
“Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said when asked to assess his current game. “We’re winning games and I’m surrounded by great players. I’ve got one of the hottest guys in the league goal-scoring wise and we have Hayes back.”
“We have really good chemistry as a line, but when we’re playing to our strengths, we’re hard to handle as a group.”
The consistency he strives to achieve is still a process. Last season, when he scored 22 goals, 21 assists and led the team with 20 even-strength goals, Miller had his slumps too. One goal in his first 13 games, one in 14 games starting in mid-November, none in 13 in the middle of the season, then one in 12 to close the season, including the first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
This season, he had the slump that led to the demotion, but he’s been terrific a lot more than he hasn’t been.
“He’s the type of guy that plays with a lot of confidence and (there is) tough love when things aren’t working out for him,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal said.
“He’s found a way to turn that around and do it a lot more consistently. He’s done that for us for a number of years now. I think he’s grown exponentially in the way he prepares and he takes himself as a professional and goes about his business in a professional way, and that shows itself on the ice.”
“I mean, you see the way he’s competing and how big a part of our team he is. He’s a huge part of when we have success.”