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Rangers Insider: J.T. Miller earning plenty of praise

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J.T. Miller helps spark the Rangers offensive attack in Game 4 vs. the Lightning.Frank Franklin II/AP

J.T. Miller helps spark the Rangers offensive attack in Game 4 vs. the Lightning.

ST. PETERSBURG – Rookie center Kevin Hayes had the primary assists on both of Rick Nash’s goals in Game 4, but he wasn’t the only young Rangers forward complementing No. 61 effectively.

J.T. Miller started on the right wing of Nash and Derick Brassard, where coach Alain Vigneault had moved him in the third period of Game 3, and he and Nash were bulls on the forecheck, winning battles, coming out of scrums frequently with the puck and creating myriad chances.

“I think when he skates he’s a different player,” Nash said of Miller at the team’s St. Petersburg hotel before an 11 a.m. flight to New York for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday night. “With his speed he creates a lot of offense, has got a great shot, he’s a physical guy, has a lot of tools of a top power forward, so he definitely opens up some room on the ice, as well … J.T. seems to kind of back off their defensemen a bit.”

Miller wasn’t just offensively responsible. He also made an excellent defensive play at the top of the offensive zone to support Marc Staal after the defenseman had pinched up the wall. Miller raced across from the middle of the ice to make a forceful cancellation of a Lightning transition opportunity.

In Game 3, Miller’s face-off win and primary assist on Dan Boyle’s goal late in regulation on Wednesday had forced overtime, and Vigneault said that his all-around play was part of what led him to move Hayes – most recently the right wing on Brassard’s line – back to the center position he played most of the year between Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis.

“To give you an honest answer – which I don’t always do at this time, I keep things in tight – I will say I thought J.T. played really well in that third period of the last game,” Vigneault said. “I saw something with him and Brass and Nasher there, and Hayes-ee with Hags and Marty had some good looks and good offensive zone time when I used them in the Pittsburgh (first-round) series. So I thought it might be something worthwhile going back to.”

GET S-MART

Martin St. Louis had an awful start to Game 4, including an early interference penalty, several lost battles, and a bad turnover on the power play that led to an Alex Killhorn shorthanded breakaway only cancelled by Dan Boyle’s strong retreat.

Once St. Louis scored into an open net off Brassard’s slick power-play feed in the early third period, however, St. Louis found three excellent scoring chances after. He poked two wide and was denied by Ben Bishop’s right pad, but the Rangers hope St. Louis’ offensive confidence has returned.

“After Marty scored that goal he had three real good looks,” Vigneault said. “I’m hoping that we’re gonna see more of those. He’s been a constant pro here, even though it’s been a test for him to get on the score sheet and score some goals, he knows that’s part of his mandate with any team, especially ours. He’s stayed with it, worked extremely hard, he got a little relief last night. Hopefully he’ll build on that and take it to the next level.”

St. Louis says he’s “hoping that I can play with a lot more confidence from that” but added later that one of the Rangers’ strengths is “having an honest opinion of how we’re actually playing.” He knows Game 4 wasn’t sufficient, goal or no goal.

TOO MUCH TO YANDLE

When puck-moving defenseman Keith Yandle was acquired from the Coyotes at the trade deadline, the idea was that he could be the final piece to the puzzle for the Rangers in their quest to win the Stanley Cup. He’s living up to that hype as of late, recording five points over his last two games, and he feels he’s playing his best hockey as a Ranger.

“I think in this series I’ve felt probably at my best and most comfortable, and I kind of feel like it’s coming together,” Yandle said Saturday, sporting a shiner on his right eye suffered in Game 3 after Steven Stamkos hit him into the boards.

Vigneault said that Yandle’s most recent performances are the best he’s seen Yandle play with the puck since he joined the team.

“How to beat the forecheck, when to jump up in the attack – it’s the best I’ve seen him play with that so far,” the coach said. “I’ve seen him play really good with (Arizona) before. It takes players a little adjustment time. He’s playing really well.”

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