"Speed! Speed! Speed!" Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault barked loudly at his players during a fast-paced practice at University of Denver's Magness Arena Thursday morning, the team preparing to face the Colorado Avalanche in the high altitude of the Mile-High City on Friday night.
The Rangers responded to their coach's urgings with a crisp practice, and with some familiar faces in new places among the team's forward line combinations and power play units.
Perhaps the most significant of the changes saw J.T. Miller once again in a top-six role, skating on a line with center Derek Stepan and left wing Chris Kreider, taking the place of Jesper Fast who was one of four forwards splitting the majority of drills on the fourth line along with Jarret Stoll, Dominic Moore, and Emerson Etem.
"I thought last game Step's line was a little bit off, while J.T. (who played on the fourth line Tuesday against the Capitals) was good, so I figure that tomorrow night I would make that switch on that line," explained Vigneault.
Miller spent the first 11 games this season skating on the third line, forming solid chemistry with streaking rookie Oscar Lindberg, with Viktor Stalberg and then Kevin Hayes rounding out that unit. Tuesday's 5-2 win over Washington was the first time Miller was put on the fourth line and he responded with a solid 16-minute performance at both ends of the ice.
So far Miller, who spent a large chunk of the pre-season playing on Stepan's line, has scored one goal and added five assists through 12 games this season, with four of those points coming in the first three contests the Rangers played.
"I probably played my better games at the beginning, I think," offered Miller on Thursday. "Offensively I think I can be much better than I've been the last six, seven games. i don't have that many prime good chances and I just think that I can be much more effective with the puck."
Miller contended that he "just competed" and "played hard for 60 minutes" Tuesday night, thus landing the top-six opportunity for Friday's tilt in Colorado.
Vigneault also had to shake things up a bit when Rick Nash left practice early because of tightening in his back. Etem replaced him on the Derick Brassard line, which is likely how Vigneault would play it Friday should Nash not be able to play.
On defense Vigneault said that he's unsure whether Dan Boyle or Dylan McIlrath will get the call on Friday. McIlrath replaced Boyle in the lineup against the Capitals and was a +1 while logging more than 19 minutes of ice time.
"I had a quick discussion last week, he's getting a little older, so sometimes when we play a more condensed schedule I might consider giving him one of those days off," explained Vigneault, noting the Rangers play back to back this weekend in Colorado and Arizona. "We have a back to back here so I'm not 100 percent sure what I am going to do."
Henrik Lundqvist, who sparkled again Tuesday night with a sharp 32-save outing, will start in goal against the Avalanche, while Vigneault hinted that Antti Raanta might get the call between the pipes against the Coyotes on Saturday.
Rangers forward lines, defense pairs and power play units at practice Thursday:
Power Play Units: