COLUMBUS, Ohio — Winger J.T. Miller and center Kevin Hayes were thriving as linemates for much of the season.
But when Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, faced with the loss of forwards Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to injuries, separated them, observers wondered if the line-shifting would have any downside against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday.
Nope. Miller and Hayes each scored twice in a 7-2 rout, the team’s third straight win on this road trip. And by the time the dust had settled at Rogers Arena, Miller was leading the club with seven goals and 17 points in 17 games — on pace for an 82-point season — and Hayes was right behind with eight goals and 16 points. Miller was tied for ninth in scoring in the NHL; Hayes was tied for 13th.
Coming off a career year in goals (22), assists (21) and points (43), Miller’s stock is climbing. “He’s working real hard, he’s working both ends, and it’s paying off for him,” Vigneault said. Miller, whose two-way game was questioned in his first few seasons, also leads the league in plus-minus at plus-16.
“I feel good,” said Miller, 23, who deflected the attention to his teammates. “It’s easy for someone to look like they’re playing well with the way we’re playing.’’ For instance, in discussing his first goal on Tuesday — a deflection — Miller praised linemate Mats Zuccarello. “He’s a special passer, he took a look at me before he turned around, I just knew to go to the net and I’m just trying to get a piece of that. It was a great play by him to put it in a spot where I could get wood on it.’’
Miller, from East Palestine, Ohio, and Hayes, 24, from Dor chester, Massachusetts, are leading an American contingent on the Rangers that has torched opposing goaltenders at a sizzling pace.
In 17 games, the seven U.S. regulars on the Rangers have totaled 27 goals and 60 assists for 87 points, and the other five all have at least 10 points. Rookie Jimmy Vesey is 7-4-11, Kreider is 3-8-11 and Derek Stepan is 2-9-11. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei haven’t found the net yet, but the captain has 11 assists and Skjei has 10, tops among rookies.
“We’re definitely finding ways right now to put the puck in the net, and that’s making it much easier for the whole team,” Miller said, referring to the Rangers’ NHL-leading 72 goals. “We’re getting everybody to produce and chip in; it’s something we’ve got to keep up . . . I’m not surprised we’re winning games; I know we have a good team.
“Obviously, it’s surprising the way we’re scoring at the rate we’re scoring right now. Every line is chipping in and that’s hard to stop, that’s been the story since the beginning of the season.”