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Rangers' J.T. Miller faces childhood idols in Penguins

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J.T. Miller grew up cheering for Sidney Crosby and now he gets a chance to knock him out of the playoffs.Rebecca Taylor/NHLI via Getty Images

J.T. Miller grew up cheering for Sidney Crosby and now he gets a chance to knock him out of the playoffs.

J.T. Miller’s hard work has thrust the Rangers’ 2011 first-round pick from the NHL’s fringe one year ago into the playoff series of his dreams — sort of.

Miller, 22, grew up in East Palestine, Ohio, cheering for Sidney Crosby. He crossed the border at the age of 15 every day after school to play for the Pittsburgh Hornets under-18 Midget major hockey program, hoping one day to play for the Penguins.

Thursday night, the promising lefthanded forward instead will proudly represent the Rangers in Game 1 of this first-round series at the Garden, but he also will cherish the “great opportunity” to take on Pittsburgh, an area he still calls home in the offseason.

“It’s pretty cool,” Miller said after Wednesday afternoon’s final pre-playoff practice in Greenburgh. “In last year’s series (against the Penguins), I only played in one game. It’s great to have the opportunity to play against guys you grew up rooting for, but you try to put those emotions aside.”

More than playing against the Penguins, though, Miller is excited to be a regular contributor in the Rangers’ lineup. He has earned it, after realizing last season that he had to.

He made a bad first impression with coach Alain Vigneault in the fall of 2013, arriving in Greenburgh the day before training camp. By the spring, Vigneault was publicly criticizing Miller’s “commitment. . . on and off the ice” and saying that if Miller “doesn’t figure it out, he’ll be a good minor-leaguer.” Miller appeared in only four playoff games and was a healthy scratch 18 times.

Then a switch flipped.

“I think I realized you only have so many opportunities, and it was time to bear down,” Miller said Wednesday.

With one year remaining on his entry-level contract, the 15th pick of the 2011 draft worked out more like a desperate, undrafted free agent in the offseason. He showed up in New York in mid-August and participated for several weeks with teammates in informal workouts before camp.

That diligence not only earned him a late-November call-up to become an eventual permanent NHL fixture, it also has translated into one of the greatest strengths of his game: A relentless work ethic. Coupling that with his 6-1, 205-pound frame, a willingness to take a hit, a nose for the net and swift, powerful skating, Miller has earned Vigneault’s respect and trust. “I think I did good things coming in early and working hard in the summer,” Miller said. “It was harder than I thought it was going to be, I guess. You realize that you can’t have that mediocre game or that bad game. You have to bring it every night.”

Miller’s work ethic has been the difference in his consistent ability lately to either play well or to play through tough stretches. He sometimes turns pucks over in bad areas, and he is notoriously hard on himself, but recently he hasn’t made the turnovers a habit nor allowed any mistakes to ruin his confidence or consistency.

He’ll open as the right wing alongside Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan because Vigneault trusted him there during Martin St. Louis’ late injury absence, and Miller produced. In a span of four games, Miller had the game-winning assist in Winnipeg on March 31, scored the game-winning goal in Minnesota on April 2, and assisted on the game-tying goal in another win over Columbus on April 6 at the Garden.

He does not enter his first full NHL postseason under the type of pressure placed on stars such as Rick Nash or St. Louis, but Miller is now one of the potential difference-makers fans may want to know everything about come June — if all goes according to plan.

That would fulfill, as Miller called it, his true “dream as a kid.”

BUMPS & BRUISES: Nash unexpectedly missed Wednesday afternoon’s practice with the flu, but Vigneault was not concerned about his availability for Game 1. Defenseman Kevin Klein (broken left arm), on the other hand, missed Tuesday’s practice and may not have skated on his own at all Wednesday, the coach said. A team spokesman clarified that Klein has not suffered a setback in his recovery, but he is definitely out for Game 1. Klein’s recovery timeline is four to six weeks, and Wednesday marked five weeks.

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