After Michael Grabner scored his 25th goal on Tuesday, he was asked: “What’s been the secret?”
The speedy Rangers winger, who is tied for fourth in the NHL in goals — one behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin as of Wednesday — offered a one-word answer: “Miller.”
Miller, of course, is linemate J.T. Miller, who fed Grabner for two goals in the 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks and leads the Blueshirts in points with 42.
In front of our eyes, Miller, 23, has evolved from a 2011 first-round pick, to a winger who paid his dues in the AHL for parts of three years before playing 82 games with the Rangers last season, to an all-around contributor with emerging leadership qualities.
He’s no secret anymore.
Always a player who doesn’t shun the physical side of the game, Miller’s learned more defensively — to the point where coach Alain Vigneault deployed him on the penalty-kill this season after hearing about his work in that role for Team North America in the World Cup — and he has consistently faced the music, win or lose, in a postgame dressing room mostly inhabited by players wearing letters.
“There’s no doubt now that J.T. wants to be out there,” said Vigneault. “He is making a difference and he wants to make a difference, not only when he has the puck.”
In the last 16 games, starting in the final days of December, Miller has recorded 20 points (seven goals and 13 assists), while also filling in ably at center while Kevin Hayes was injured.
The surge came soon after Miller found himself in a rut, with just four points and many more missed reads in 17 games.
Imagination and creativity, in the wrong situation, can hurt.
“We’re working quite a bit with J.T. to improve some of his decisions with the puck,” Vigneault said at the time. “He’s got a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability and in himself, but sometimes the play on the ice demands the high-percentage play. As much as we like the offensive looks that he’s getting, the ratio of chances for and against needs to be better. There are too many things being forced, and not just in our zone. It got to the point where we had to cut his ice time a little bit.”
In the last dozen games, a maturing Miller has earned his way back to playing more than 17 minutes a night, and with his decisions improving (consider his career-high 26 assists, including seven in the last four games), the third line with Hayes and Grabner could be a weapon down the stretch.
The play leading to Grabner’s goal that extended the Rangers’ third-period lead to 3-1 on Tuesday illustrates Miller’s risk-taking.
“I was just telling him [Grabner] that if I get a chance, I’ll get my eyes up, so just get going,” Miller said. “I had a little bit of separation [along the left boards] and I could see his feet moving. He’s already going, that’s what makes him so good.” The cross-ice pass, through some extended sticks, came to Grabner in stride down the middle, he beat goalie John Gibson, and the Rangers extended their winning streak to three.
Knowing when to take a risk: When it works, it can be a game-breaker.