JT MIller

Looking to make the leap: J.T. Miller

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“J.T. has to figure it out and hopefully he will. When he does, we’re going to have a good player. If he doesn’t, he will be a good minor league player.

“He just hasn’t earned the right to be at this level on a regular basis. He needs to show more commitment on the ice and off. Until he does that, he hasn’t earned the right.”

That was Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault this past April in the wake of Miller’s sixth demotion to AHL Hartford. Miller, New York’s first-round pick (15th overall) at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, had a tough time winning over Vigneault last season (obviously) and showed signs of regression, scoring just three goals in 30 games in his second year with the Blueshirts.

Which brings us to the present — or, as Miller and the Rangers might refer to it, crunch time.

Heading into the final of his three-year, entry-level deal, Miller is at something of an organizational crossroads. Both he and the club want him established as a full-time NHLer, yet both seem to recognize there are only so many kicks at the can.

“I think we made it pretty clear to [Miller] when he left where he stands and the opportunity in front of him. You only get so many chances,” Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton told NHL.com. “I think J.T. is a pretty proud guy and a confident kid. I think he’s encouraged there’s a chance for him in the lineup. We’re all looking forward to how he comes back, but it’s all up to him.”

One positive for Miller is New York’s thinned-out depth up front, specifically at center. Brian Boyle and Brad Richards are no longer in the mix and that could provide Miller the opportunity to man the middle and utilize his playmaking skills — remember, the former OHL Plymouth standout was a good setup man for the U.S. gold medal-winning squad at the ’13 World Juniors, leading the team with seven assists in seven games.

(Miller, who’s played a bunch of left wing, could also benefit from Benoit Pouliot’s departure to Edmonton.)

One negative for Miller, though, is how New York addressed those departures. The Rangers built forward depth through a number of low-cost veteran signings — Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, Chris Mueller, Matthew Lombardi — which makes for crowded competition. What’s more, Miller must keep an eye on another pair of prospects that have made positive impressions on the organization: Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo, the latter of who inked a one-year extension with the Rangers on Tuesday.

The wildcard in all this? Vigneault. He forged a reputation in Vancouver as a coach that prefers experienced, veteran guys that make “high-percentage plays” rather than younger players still figuring things out. He’s also put players on blast before, notably Pouliot — AV actually used the “kicks at the can” line to roast him last November.

“I’ve had this conversation with Ben, I’ve had this conversation with a few players in my career. You only get so many kicks at the can here, you only get so many teams,” Vigneault told The Bergen Record. “Obviously a guy like Ben, a high pick, a high skill level, you see it now and then and you go, ‘Wow, why does the inconsistency or whatever is, not there on a more regular basis?”

While the “only get so many teams” thing doesn’t apply to Miller, the “high pick, high skill level” thing sure does. In light of that, it’ll be interesting to see if Miller responds the same way Pouliot did — after getting called out by Vigneault, the 27-year-old scored 32 points over the final 53 games of the year, potted another 10 in 25 playoff games and then scored a mega five-year, $20 million contract from Edmonton.

Kucherov continues to be clutch for the Bolts this postseason

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03:  Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New York Islanders in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on May 03, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Lightning defeated the Islanders 5-4 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The bigger the playoff moment, the more Nikita Kucherov shines.

The young Russian has a knack for scoring when Tampa Bay needs it most, which is one of the reasons the Lightning are within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.

Kucherov has found the back of the net a NHL-leading 11 times in 15 games this postseason, seven of them in situations in which he’s either tied the score or given his team a lead.

The 22-year-old’s latest addition to his impressive playoff resume he began compiling last year was a late goal Sunday to force overtime against Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He also notched an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s winner less than a minute into the extra period.

The 4-3 victory on the road gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 in Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.

“When you’re a rising star in this league, as he is … every team’s got one of those guys at some point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion. He is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke. He’s just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He’s really a pleasure to coach.”

Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 playoff games a year ago, including a pair of overtime winners that helped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. One more victory and Tampa Bay will become the first team to make consecutive trips to the championship round since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings did it in 2008 and 2009.

“He keeps climbing the ladder, and he keeps getting better. But what has really been remarkable for me this year in watching him is the timeliness of his game. He’s not scoring one goal in a 6-1 loss or the sixth goal in a 6-1 win,” Cooper said Monday.

“He’s getting the game-tier, game-winner; sets up the biggest of the biggest goals, and that says a little bit about the type of player you are,” the coach added. “When you need him, he’s the one ultimately, more often than not, that’s there for you. I think that’s the one thing that’s remarkable about him.”

Pittsburgh has gone from a 2-1 series lead to facing elimination for the first time this postseason after losing consecutively for the first time since January.

Coach Mike Sullivan said he won’t make a decision on a starting goaltender for Game 6 until Tuesday morning. Marc-Andre Fleury made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, and was unable to protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.

Rookie Matt Murray started the first four games of this series and is 9-4 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage.

“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, adding it was difficult to gauge how much the long layoff impacted Fleury’s performance.

“It’s a tough circumstance. We believe in the guys we have. We think we have quality people, but it’s an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said before the team flew south to Florida on Monday. “All things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can.”

The Penguins are confident than can rebound Tuesday night and take the series back home for a seventh game.

“I believe in my team. I believe in myself, and we can come back to Pittsburgh for sure,” Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said.

“Every game you shake off, win or lose,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said.

“This group has done a terrific job all year of just staying in the moment and not dwelling on the past, not getting ahead of itself, and just trying to focus on that one game in hand,” Sullivan said, “and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Tampa Bay plans to approach it the same way.

The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to take a 3-2 lead in last year’s conference finals. They returned home and were trounced 7-3 in Game 6.

“You can’t sit here and dictate or guarantee what the result’s going to be, but our mindset going into the game has got to be a heck of a lot different,” Cooper said. “And our group is well aware of that.”

 

PHT Morning Skate: Nobody is better at predicting the Stanley Cup playoffs than actor Will Arnett

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–Will Arnett knows a thing or two about making good Stanley Cup predictions. (Top)

–Some concept jerseys for the Las Vegas Aces. (BarDown)

–Sharks center Joe Thornton really is a nice guy. (ESPN)

–Watch the highlights from last night’s game between the Sharks and Blues:

–The IIHF’s updated world rankings. (IIHF.com)

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has done a good job against Vladimir Tarasenko.

–Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine put together some solid performances at the worlds. (NHL.com)

Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options,’ says his agent

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 21:  Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings checks his stick before a face-off against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 21, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Pavel Datsyuk‘s future with the Detroit Red Wings and in the National Hockey League has been up in the air for a while now, as he’s linked to rumors of a return to Russia and the KHL.

His agent, Dan Milstein, recently explained to the Detroit Free Press that Datsyuk’s future should become clear in mid-June after meeting with Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.

As per General Fanager, Datsyuk has one more year left on his current deal, which comes with a cap hit of $7.5 million.

From the Detroit Free Press:

“He would like to leave, but at the same time, he wants to make sure the Wings have options,” Milstein said. “He wants to help the team any way he can with the salary cap issue.”

Wings general manager Ken Holland has said there are no loopholes. Because Datsyuk signed his last contract after he turned 35, his $7.5 million salary cap hit remains in tact even if Datsyuk departs. The Wings’ only option is to trade his contract to a team such as Arizona or Carolina that could use the hefty cap hit in order to be above the salary cap minimum.

At the age of 37, his career in the league started in 2001-02, and has spanned 953 regular season games in which he’s accrued 918 points.

He’s had a highly decorated career, with two Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings, three Selke and four Lady Byng trophies.

Allen or Elliott? Another goalie decision looms for Hitchcock

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues tends goal against Nick Spaling #16 of the San Jose Sharks during the third period in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues need to win Game 6 on Wednesday, or their season is over. Who they decide to turn to in net is likely to be a talking point — heated debate, maybe? — leading up to that contest.

Do they go back to Jake Allen for a third consecutive start, despite the fact he allowed four goals on 25 shots in Monday’s Game 5 loss to the San Jose Sharks? Or, will head coach Ken Hitchcock turn once again to Brian Elliott, who started every single game from the series opener of the first round versus Chicago to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.

Hitchcock at least felt that going with Allen over Elliott in Game 4 provided the necessary spark for his team, as the Blues evened the series.

But on Monday, the Sharks, on the strength of two Joe Pavelski goals, eventually overpowered the Blues for the win, moving San Jose one victory away from the Stanley Cup Final.

“I thought he was fine. I don’t know, those are decisions we make in a day or so. But I thought he was fine today. He stopped some point-blank shots, especially early, three times early,” Hitchcock told reporters.

“I don’t know. That’s stuff we’ll talk about tomorrow.”