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Rangers' Miller growing into offensive catalyst

Forward has moved well beyond 'good minor leaguer' label

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Miller's game-tying goal

MIN@NYR: Miller ties the game with a one-timer

2/4/16: Derick Brassard sends a pass from behind the Wild net to J.T. Miller, who unleashes a one-timer into the twine that ties the game

  • 00:49 •

NEW YORK -- It wasn't long ago that New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was so frustrated with forward J.T. Miller that he dropped the verbal hammer on him.

"If he doesn't figure it out, he'll be a good minor leaguer," Vigneault said, according to the New York Daily News.

Ouch.

That same day, April 2, 2014, the Rangers sent Miller to Hartford of the American Hockey League for the sixth time, in his second NHL season.

It seems like forever ago.

Miller scored another goal and assisted on the game-winning goal in the Rangers' 4-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. He has four goals in the past three games and eight in the past eight. He has been the top-line left wing the past four games with Rick Nash out because of a bone bruise.

Miller has set NHL bests in goals (16) and points (29) in 51 games this season. He had 10 goals and 23 points in 58 games last season, when he was played 18 games in Hartford before coming back on a full-time basis in late November.

Miller will try to keep his hot streak alive against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, CSN-PH, MSG).

"[Vigneault] kept saying it was part of his process and he's there now," said center Derick Brassard, who scored the game-winner against the Wild after being on the receiving end of Miller's pass. "He's not that young anymore and I think he's taking a lot of responsibility for being good for this team. He's taking on a lot of leadership for his age."

Miller still is kind of young; he doesn't turn 23 until March 14. But he has experienced quite a bit in his four NHL seasons.

He made his debut at age 19 during the 2012-13 season and had four points in 26 games. He was up and down between the Rangers and the AHL during the 2013-14 season but got into 30 regular-season games and four during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That was after Vigneault's hammer quote.

It should have been enough for Miller to have it all click for him last season but he played three games before being sent to the AHL again. He was called up, played well, faded and was scratched four times in a span of eight games between mid-January and early February.

Miller admitted to NHL.com at the time that he was guilty of taking games off. It shouldn't have been happening, but it was and he had to fix it.

He did by late in the season, enough to get second-line minutes during the playoffs.

But he struggled to find consistency again at the start of this season and scored four goals in his first 30 games despite regularly getting chances, if not top-six minutes.

Video: NYR@NJD: Miller rips one-timer by Schneider

He has 12 goals in his past 21 games.

What has changed?

Center Derek Stepan said Miller is playing better defensively, and that's sparking his offense.

"He certainly has the skill," Stepan said. "You can see it. When he gets a hold of pucks he's able to hold onto it and make plays, and the guy can [shoot] it hard."

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh said he has noticed Miller using his body more than he had in the past.

"He's a thick guy (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), so he's utilizing his body in order to come up with the puck more," McDonagh said. "He's doing little things in order to give himself a chance in the [offensive] zone to be creative. He's certainly making plays and becoming an impact player consistently. He's being a big-time leader out there, too."

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist said he can tell the difference in Miller's confidence, particularly in practice when he is shooting the puck.

"He has good hands, vision, everything to become a great hockey player and he's getting there," Lundqvist said. "But the biggest thing is probably just confidence, realizing that he is that good and he can use all these tools to be a great player."

Vigneault, less than two years after saying Miller might end up as just a good minor-league player, said he now sees someone who is committed to his craft.

"I see a young man that is definitely growing and understanding more every day what it is to be a pro, and going out there and working hard to become the best player he could be," Vigneault said. "He's getting an opportunity right now and he's definitely playing well for us."

Miller knows how well he has been playing and has the feeling everything he shoots is going in; his eight goals in the past eight games have come on 22 shots on goal. But he said he's trying not to get caught up in what he's doing.

"I'm just happy it's in the net at the end of the day," Miller said. "It's good to find a little chemistry with some guys. Myself and Derick and Jesper [Fast] are good right now."

That might be an understatement.

"He's turning into an elite player," Stepan said, "and we need him to be that."

He figured it out.

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