The start of the play was as impressive as the finish, and both told the whole story about the player Kevin Hayes has become for the Rangers.
Hayes, with his honed hockey instincts, jumped the route. Hayes, with his long reach, stole the puck. Hayes, with his improved speed, broke away. And Hayes, with his magical mitts, beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky through the pads.
Hayes said he “guessed” that Columbus would go “D-to-D” with that pass. Yeah, it might have been a guess. An educated guess.
The fact is, the biggest step that Hayes’ game has taken in this, his third NHL season, is on the defensive side of the puck. His play without the puck.
Hayes is on the puck-carrier in the opponents’ zone, creating or forcing, turnovers near the blue line or in the neutral zone. And the Rangers are one of the better counter-attack teams in the league.
“He is forcing a lot of turnovers,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said about the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Hayes.
“Yes, that body, that reach. When you use it properly, and are in the right structure, you are going to create turnovers and a lot of their opportunities and chances come off of turnovers that they create, whether [with] Grabs’ speed or Kevin’s reach. They counter quickly.”
Hayes, 24, has 15 goals and 27 assists, despite missing five games with an injury.
Here’s the ironic part, perhaps. The Rangers spent their summer trying to find penalty killers – including Grabner – but found out that two of their best were already on the roster. Hayes and Miller hadn’t killed penalties as NHLers (or if they had, it wasn’t much).
Now, Hayes leads the NHL in short-handed assists (5) and points (6). The last Ranger to put up as many as five short-handed assists was Mark Messier.
He also has three game-winning goals (the goal in Columbus didn’t turn out to be the winner), plus a deciding shootout goal against New Jersey in Hayes’ only shootout attempt of the season.
On the first day of training camp, Vigneault made two interesting remarks. He noted, without being asked, that the player whose physical testing rated highest was Hayes, who worked hard all summer to shed pounds and not only gain conditioning, but also quickness and foot speed.
Vigneault also said that “if we’re going to get better as a group, those young players (Hayes, Chris Kreider, and Miller) have to get better individually.
“They want to be counted on, and they want to help this team, this organization, win.”
So far, they have.
“He is just rounding out as a player,” Vigneault said Monday.
“We are using him to kill penalties right now. That big body, he is understanding the game better at both ends, what he needs to do when he doesn’t have the puck, to get it back and what he needs to do with it when he has it. He is one of our younger players and it’s just about understanding the game better and putting it all together.”
Miller knows as well as anybody the ups-and-downs of a young player trying to learn the subtleties of the NHL game, especially when the opponent has the puck. And he gets as good a view as anybody of Hayes’ improvements.
“Part of that process that AV talks about is for all of us young guys and I think we’ve all gone through it,” Miller said.
“He’s still learning things, but obviously he’s rounding out his game really well. He’s making plays on both sides of the puck and he’s really dangerous whenever he’s got the puck on his stick, and even defensively on the penalty kill. His stick is so effective. There’s really not much he doesn’t do well. That was definitely part of his game and my game that was missing, finishing at that end of the rink. I know we’ve done a good job of learning, and we spend a lot of time together, so it’s good for both of us. But he’s really dangerous on both sides of the puck this year.”
There were times in his first two seasons – an eye-opening freshman year and a bit of the frequently-seen sophomore slump – when Hayes played the wing, mostly because of his defensive play. Now he’s in the middle, you would think permanently, due to the adjustments he’s made to his game.
“He’s understanding the importance of both sides of the game, as a centerman especially,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said.
“There’s no question about his talent with the puck, his vision, his play-making ability, and he’s giving himself more opportunities to be offensive because he’s been strong in his own end, and in good position, staying below the puck as the low centerman that we like to have. So that’s been a key part for him that he’s really been focused on, maybe not being talked about a lot because he’s found ways to get on the scoresheet. But I like that he’s taking more of a role penalty killing and defensively for us, too.”
That means making a play when the opponent has the puck, forcing the pass and creating a turnover.
“He’s really good, kind of like (Derek Stepan), baiting those guys into passing it,” McDonagh said. “But he’s got a little longer reach, too, and he’s using his body to take time and space away from guys. Like any player, you get a little more experienced at that position, and you can definitely see the confidence in his game.”
In fact, you can’t miss it.