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Kevin Hayes showing vast improvement for Rangers

Kevin Hayes of the New York Rangers skates

Kevin Hayes of the New York Rangers skates with the puck in the first poeriod against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH — Kevin Hayes dished up his best overall game of the season in Sunday’s 6-1 defeat of the Lightning, assisting on three goals, with two shots, a couple hits, winning 47 percent of his faceoffs and finishing with a plus 4. His line, with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, produced four goals and nine points and will stick together after that performance.

Hayes, 24, who scored nine fewer points than the 45 in his rookie year out of Boston College and drew some public criticism from coach Alain Vigneault, has responded with two goals and four assists in nine games.

“People might assume that myself or [general manager] Jeff (Gorton) had a stern message for him on the way out [in May’s exit interviews after the first-round playoff loss] because of what happened,” Vigneault said Monday. “But to tell you the truth, he came into my office and Jeff’s office and we both heard the same from him. He knew that there were definite areas of improvement that he had to address and he went out and did it. Credit him.”

Vigneault was impressed when a leaner, focused Hayes arrived in camp.

“Outstanding condition, our most improved in testing,” he said. “When a guy puts in the time in the summer to get himself in the best possible shape he can be and in the right frame of mind, you want to support a guy like that, you want to be in his corner. I’m not really showing him confidence, he’s really earned the fact that he deserves to be out there. He’s worked on his faceoffs, every day he’s doing extra, he’s becoming a pro. The more he improves and the quicker he improves, the better off we’re going to be.”

Kreider’s return has ramifications

Chris Kreider’s return from neck spasms has a ripple effect on two players: Pavel Buchnevich and Oscar Lindberg. The Russian wing, who was in the top six before suffering back spasms that forced him to sit for five games, will slide down to the fourth line with Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast.

In the preseason and to start the season, Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Buchnevich “was a real effective line,” said Vigneault. “Now that Zukie’s [Mats Zuccarello] been playing with Mika a little bit, it’s just a natural step to put Kreids back there. In Pavel’s case, with [Derek] Stepan’s line and the way Haysies’ line’s been playing, it’s four balanced lines that can throw a lot of speed and skill at you.”

Won’t Buchnevich (two assists in three games) who was very active around the net on Sunday, skate fewer minutes? Not necessarily, Vigneault said: “A lot of times it depends on specialty teams. Fast plays shorthanded, and Pavel and Brandon are on the power play, so things even themselves out.”

Lindberg, who had played four straight after recovering from offseason hip surgery, but just nine minutes on Sunday, will be a healthy scratch on Tuesday. “Just the odd-man out,” Vigneault said.

Skjei’s vision

Brady Skjei’s first-period pass from the left corner to the right circle to set up Grabner’s first of three goals was pure vision. “I got the pass from Hayes, looked up and saw the lane, and one player [Valtteri Filppula] had no stick — it had broken,” Skjei said.

“You’re aware, the bench is always yelling when a guy has no stick,” Pirri said. “He’s helpless. It’s almost better than a power play.”

Clendening to see more action

With a busy schedule of five games in eight nights, defenseman Adam Clendening, a healthy scratch for the last four games — and likely Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues — will see some action soon. Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start against the Blues.

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