Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues
Whatever you may think of former Rangers coach John Tortorella, he was right when he talked about the eventual evolution of J.T. Miller.
Two years ago, in early February 2013, before the Tortorella reign imploded, he was discussing Miller, then a 19-year-old center and Chris Kreider, after a game: "They are probably going to take some people's jobs," he said. "We have some other guys playing careful, and we don't play careful hockey."
Now 22, Miller is playing an even more robust game as a winger and is starting to win over coach Alain Vigneault, who, like Tortorella, had tried to play the former 2011 first-round pick at the center position.
Miller is expected to dress Sunday against the Panthers for his 100th NHL game, and he's gaining traction on a line with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin.
With 13 goals and 15 assists in 18 games, that trio is one of the major reasons that the Rangers have been able to survive and advance -- to borrow an NCAA Tournament bromide -- despite the loss of Henrik Lundqvist.
Hagelin, the speed demon, and Hayes, who is using his size to control the puck and create chances in the offensive zone, are receiving the accolades, and deservedly so, with 11 of those 13 goals.
But Miller, whose skills were never an issue in the AHL, is fleshing out that line. "He's working real hard at becoming a good two-way player," Vigneault said of Miller, who had two goals in the last six games and was 7-8-15 in 42 games entering Saturday night's game in Buffalo. "A lot of times he's willing to take the check to make the play. The willingness to buy your team a couple extra seconds to be in the right position is huge. Some nights are better than others, but lately we're having a lot of good nights."
On Wednesday, when Miller scored the winning goal in Washington, he said he knew the Capitals "were going to try to hit us, they all play a physical game. We knew we had to match that."
His effectiveness came along the wall. "It comes with time," he said. "I'm trying, if anything, to make a battle of it. I've got a big frame and trying to protect the puck when I can. I feel good with who I'm playing with. We don't take any short cuts, we've got to be physical and play hard defensively, we know that consciously as a line. We're not spending much time at all in the defensive zone."
But Miller, who has been shuttled up and down from the minors nine times in the past two seasons, admits he also is maturing on the mental and emotional side of the game.
"If I make a bad play, it's not the end of the world," he said. "I'm a competitive guy and I don't want to make mistakes, but I'm learning in this league, if you have a bad shift, you can't let it affect you, you move on. I don't have too many times in my memory bank when I came down and slammed the stick and scored on the next shift; it's tough to rebound off negativity. You keep it lighter at times. We know in back of our minds, it'll work itself out."
Cam before storm
Cam Talbot's stock has risen with his clutch performance during the absence of Henrik Lundqvist, and raises the possibility of a trade to a team hunting for a No. 1 goaltender in the offseason or during next season. Judging by how things are shaking out, San Jose, Edmonton, Buffalo, San Jose, Dallas and Carolina could use Talbot. The price will have to be right -- perhaps a first-round draft pick: The Rangers do not have one in June or in 2016. Talbot, 27, signed an extension worth $1.4 million in 2015-16, but Lundqvist is clearly the No. 1 netminder and the Rangers don't want to lose Talbot for nothing after next season. Someone reliable, experienced -- and relatively inexpensive -- will be needed to handle a minimum of 20 starts; Mackenzie Skapski, 20, is not the answer and prospect Brandon Halverson has no AHL experience.
Heard around . . .
What did players take from their off-day visit to the U.S. Secret Service training facility in Maryland on Thursday, during which they learned about tactical maneuvers, shot weapons on ranges and went through other simulated sessions? "Don't screw with Zuke; he's an assassin," said Cam Talbot. Keith Yandle, who won a match on a target program, appreciates the government's spending. "It was like a video game, a $300,000 one." Tanner Glass, who participated in a team-bonding program at West Point with the Penguins, said this was far less exhausting: "No crawling uphill through mud." . . . Since the trade deadline, LeeStempniak was 1-1-2 in four games for Winnipeg; John Moore was 0-1-1 in five games with Arizona. He is minus-5, but playing 19 minutes a game.