By Matt Calamia (Twitter)
Few players in Rangers history have made a more memorable impact in their first game at Madison Square Garden than J.T. Miller made on Feb. 7 against the New York Islanders.
Playing in just his second NHL game, the then 19-year-old forward notched two goals and was named the game’s first star in a 4-1 win over the Islanders. Quite a first impression on the Garden Faithful.
“The two goals were kind of a blur,” Miller, now 20, told BlueshirtsUnited.com.
The call-up — which came two days prior — and the goals were just a pair of more unforgettable moments for the young forward in what has been a whirlwind year to say the least.
After making his professional regular season debut with the Connecticut Whale (AHL), Miller joined Team USA for the 2013 World Junior Championship tournament in Ufa, Russia. He finished ninth in the tournament with nine points — including a team-leading seven assists — in seven games, as the U.S. defeated Sweden to capture their first Gold Medal since 2010.
“We had the right guys,” Miller said of the championship-winning group. “The year before we had all the best players … but I just don’t think it was the right team. We had the right guys this year. Maybe not the best, but the right ones. We were really tight-knit.”
Miller is no stranger to playing for his country, dating back to his high school days in Pennsylvania when he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program in the United States Hockey League during the 2009-10 season when he was a junior. In 29 games, he posted five goals and seven assists. Later on, he had a strong showing at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, posting five goals and nine points in six games, as the U.S. took the Gold Medal.
The following season, Miller won Gold again with Team USA, this time at the Under-18 World Junior Championship, scoring four goals and 13 points in six games.
“They couldn’t have prepared me any better there,” Miller said of the USNDP, which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It’s all about development there. There was no where else, pre-draft, that you can go to help prepare you better.”
Miller had committed to joining the University of North Dakota, but instead opted to play for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League due to his desire to get to the NHL as quick as he could.
“Post-draft, I was picked fairly high (15th overall in 2011) and we felt I could get [to the NHL] a little quicker [by playing in the OHL],” he said. “We all agreed the faster route would be Plymouth.” Miller said it was just a personal preference and that players must choose the route that “benefits you.”
Miller spent the 2011-12 season with Plymouth, posting 25 goals and 62 points in 61 regular season games to go along with two goals and 10 points in 13 playoff games. He then joined the Whale for their playoff run, and finished with one assist in eight games.
After getting a taste of the NHL, Miller — who said he began shooting again after taking about six weeks to rest his injured wrist — said he is entering this offseason hungrier than ever to become a mainstay in the league and with the Rangers.
“I see what it takes now. I have a good idea of what it takes to be there, and stay there,” Miller said. “I feel like I have a good opportunity to come in and get stronger, faster and show them I’m ready to play. I have to make sure this offseason is big for me.
For Miller, the success of this past year is just the beginning.
“I try not to get caught up in the moment and try and get better each day,” Miller said. “It’s fun to look back on and I want to keep building on it. I don’t want to be satisfied with one year.”