TORONTO – His teams have been so good that J.T. Miller has never been in an NHL playoff race.
Think about it: The Tampa Bay Lightning teams Miller played on the last two springs amassed 241 points and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs by an average of 25, which is not so much a playoff gap as a galaxy. The Lightning could have sold playoff tickets at Thanksgiving.
The three seasons before that, Miller’s New York Rangers averaged 105 points and made the playoffs by 17, eight and eight points, respectively. An eight-point cushion means you need to be careful, but you’re not developing ulcers or sleep disorders, and by the final week you’re wondering only about who you’ll face in the playoffs and not whether you’ll get there.
But here is Miller with the Vancouver Canucks, a couple of weeks shy of his 27th birthday, and closing in on 500 NHL games, walking the tightrope of a playoff race for the first time.
Seems he’s pretty good at it, too.
“No joke, this is such a fun time of year,” Miller told Sportsnet before the Canucks arrived in Toronto for Saturday night’s game against the Maple Leafs. “When you’re young, you don’t really realize how good it is but also how hard it is to win. I have such a respect for the trophy and how hard it is to get there. It all kind of starts now. It’s nice to have these games, these last 20, that are all games you have to get up for.”
Miller has been up for them.
He was the best Canuck during the first two games of this road trip – a win in Montreal, a loss in Ottawa – and in his last four games has amassed three goals and five assists. Miller is pulling away from linemate Elias Pettersson for the team scoring lead, and the American winger’s 65 points, which include 25 goals, had him 16th in NHL scoring on Friday morning.
He is having a blast.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who haven’t been in a playoff run,” he said. “I think it’s important that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves down the stretch and start squeezing it too tight. But I think it’s good that we’re in (a playoff race). Last year in Tampa, we clinched so early that we got away from our game a little bit going into the playoffs. This year, we have to play our game right into the playoffs.
“A lot of guys haven’t gone through one of these. Myself, I haven’t really gone through one because I’ve been fortunate enough that most of the playoffs I’ve been in, my team got in fairly early and there wasn’t a lot of pressure down the stretch. We were ahead in the race. Now we’re in the middle of the race. I think that’s going to benefit us, bring the best out of us.”
We’ll reserve judgement until April 5, but the Canucks, despite an inconsistent February, have put themselves in a strong position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They are two points up on the Western Conference’s ninth-place team, the Winnipeg Jets, but have played three fewer games.
The Athletic’s standings-projections model, adjusted daily, gives the Canucks an 86 per-cent chance of making the playoffs. Vancouver has 19 games remaining.
“I don’t think we have a lesser goal than the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals or the top couple of teams in the league,” Miller said. “We all want to win. Whether that’s the Stanley Cup or making the playoffs or winning tomorrow night, the goal doesn’t change.
“Here, we have something to play for every night. The playoffs kind of start now for us.”
The Canucks have beaten the Bruins and Capitals this season, beaten other top teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. But they were also swept by the New Jersey Devils and, in the last two weeks, were outscored 10-3 by the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators. They’ve scored nine goals in a game (Boston), allowed nine goals in a game (Tampa). The Canucks have pumped in at least five goals a mind-blowing 20 times, yet been held to one or zero goals in 14 games.
They are, generally, spectacularly fun to watch.
Their steadiest forward – and a steadying influence – has been Miller. Until general manager Jim Benning sacrificed first- and third-round draft picks to acquire him from the Lightning last June, Miller hadn’t scored more than 23 goals or 56 points in a season.
Even he never envisioned being a point-per-game player.
“Not really, no,” he said. “That’s why I think every year I don’t really put a (target) number on my production. I’m playing a lot of minutes a night. . . and I’m just trying to make the most of it, playing with great players on a good team. I think it’s easy to look good most nights when you’re playing on a good team like this.
“I’m happy to be here, happy it happened. I’ve got nothing but respect for the Lightning organization. They gave me a good opportunity there, too, but it is probably a better fit here.”
The Canucks, who did not practise Friday, finish their four-game trip Sunday in Columbus before playing 10 of their final 17 games at home.