By Sean Hartnett
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There comes a point when an NHL youngster figures it out and gives reason to believe he’s on his way to great things.READ MORE: NYC Hospitality Alliance: Mayor De Blasio 'Grinch' For Vaccine Mandate That May Keep Tourists With Young Children Away
Halfway into his fourth NHL season, Rangers winger J.T. Miller is showing all the signs of such a breakthrough. The high-energy forward has been an unstoppable force since mid-December, collecting 17 points in his last 21 games.
This isn’t a blip; it’s a sign of things to come. Miller is laying down the groundwork for a lengthy and distinguished career. At 22, he’s already figured out how to be a force across 200 feet of ice and that’s huge positive for the current and future Rangers.
“I see a young man that is definitely growing and understanding more every day what it is to be a pro, and going out there and working hard to become the best player he could be,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s putting in a lot of time in his off-ice conditioning, works hard in practice, and he’s getting an opportunity right now and he’s definitely playing well for us.”
After collecting a goal and an assist in Thursday’s 4-2 home win over the Minnesota Wild, Miller has eight goals in his past eight games. Although he’s already set new career highs with 16 goals and 29 points through 51 games, the biggest difference in Miller’s game is his play in the defensive end. He is pairing his high-effort motor with the savvy of a seasoned pro.
“He’s making very smart plays on the wall,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal said. “It’s not an easy job for a winger to get the puck on the wall and get it out of your end consistently. He’s able to find guys coming out of our end where we get to control the puck. It makes a big difference to come out clean like that. A big reason for him having success offensively is starting in his own end, being solid. It’s great to see.”READ MORE: Amazon Web Services Outage Spells Trouble For MTA App Users, Among Others
Miller’s transformation into a dominant player at both ends of the ice has been particularly important because star winger Rick Nash has missed the past four games because of a bone bruise on his left leg. With Nash out, Miller has been duplicating the way Nash was a force in all three zones last season.
“He’s not just a one-trick pony,” defenseman Keith Yandle said. “He plays hard in his own zone, he’s good with the puck, he obviously has an outstanding shot. The biggest thing is the work he puts in. It’s fun to see a guy like that get rewarded.”
Perhaps the most glowing endorsement came from superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. For 11 seasons, Lundqvist has seen star teammates come and go at Madison Square Garden. “King Henrik” is predicting that Miller will become a great player.
“I think it’s his confidence,” Lundqvist said. “The first practice I saw him, his strength, the way he shoots the puck. He has good hands, vision … he has everything to become a great hockey player. He’s getting there. He’s improving so much, but the biggest thing is probably just confidence, realizing that he is that good and he can use all these tools to be a great player.”
You could tell during last season’s playoffs that Miller was beginning to turn the corner in his young career. When Martin St. Louis struggled and Mats Zuccarello was missing from the lineup, Miller stepped up when the Rangers needed someone to rise to the occasion. In 2015-16, he’s figured out how to be consistent night in and night out.
Even more than Zuccarello, who has at times carried this team this season, Miller has been the Rangers’ most consistent and effective forward.MORE NEWS: 'West Side Story' Returns To Paterson For Special Screening
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey