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Rookie Kevin Hayes excels with Rangers' top line

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Kevin Hayes celebrates the game-winning goal after picking up the assist on the play.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Kevin Hayes celebrates the game-winning goal after picking up the assist on the play.

Kevin Hayes continues to play beyond his years.

Alain Vigneault promoted the Rangers’ rookie forward to top-line right wing for Martin St. Louis on Saturday, and the juggling act paid off as Hayes provided the game-winning assist to Dominic Moore. Hayes has shown a penchant for big plays in this postseason, with the winning overtime goal in Game 4 against the Penguins, the tying goal in Game 7 against the Capitals and now the assist on the winning goal in the Blueshirts’ 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Oddly enough, Hayes played the last two seasons as a right wing at Boston College but didn’t revert back to the position with the Rangers until after Mats Zuccarello was injured during the Pittsburgh series. Hayes had been used mostly at center but also saw time at left wing.

“I like playing whatever position I play, but playing with those two guys (Derick Brassard and Rick Nash) is nice. You’re looked upon to create offense,” Hayes said. “I thought we did that. The goals weren’t there (for the top line), but I thought we had some good looks.”

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St. Louis was demoted to the third line in favor of Hayes and failed to register a shot on goal. More is expected of the 39-year-old St. Louis, who has four assists but no goals in the playoffs.

His best opportunity came at 4:59 of the opening period when new linemate Carl Hagelin drew in two Tampa Bay defensemen and centered the puck. St. Louis, the former Lightning captain, had a golden opportunity on an open net at the right post but whiffed and sent the puck wide. He was set up again in the slot during the second period, but again fired wide.

“(Vigneault) wants every player to play a 200-foot game and I’m no different,” said St. Louis, who was informed of his demotion to the third line on Friday. “He wants guys to bring pucks to the net, he wants everybody to score goals. He doesn’t care who scores the goals as long as we score. I’m trying to do that like everybody else.”

The Rangers’ new third line played well, but St. Louis remains snake-bitten.

“I thought we had some looks,” he said. “We had a lot of offensive zone time and we’re going to keep working at it.”

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