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Healthy scratch was just what Kevin Hayes needed to jumpstart his game

The Rangers and Kevin Hayes both know the team is better when he's skating hard and competing at a high level. Jared Silber/NHLI/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes was not happy when his name was scratched from the lineup in late December.

He had gone a stretch of 16 games without a goal and had only three assists in that span when coach Alain Vigneault decided Hayes should sit and watch for a pair of road games, Dec. 30 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jan. 2 against the Florida Panthers.

"It was just a wakeup call," Hayes said. "You want to be in the lineup every night. When you get so used to being in the lineup you kind of get complacent, and that's what happened and hopefully it doesn't happen again."

Since returning to the lineup after his brief stint on the press level, Hayes has four goals and seven assists in 20 games.

Last Wednesday, Hayes had one goal and one assist in a 5-3 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. He added an assist in the Rangers' 1-0 OT win over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. He has registered at least a point in four of his past six games, with three goals and three assists in that span.

Hayes is using his size and speed in all three zones, and the production has returned since Vigneault made the 23-year-old a healthy scratch.

"I needed a wakeup call," the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Boston-born right winger said. "I'm not upset about it. I have no hard feelings towards it. I deserved what was happening. I'm trying to work hard and not let it happen again.

"My game's playing up pretty well lately. It all goes back to basics and it starts by working hard, and that's what I'm trying to do."

The Rangers are 16-3-4 this season when Hayes registers a point, including a 7-1-2 record when he scores a goal.

Vigneault recently discussed his decision to sit Hayes for those two games. The coach admitted he should have handled it differently, but he's also pleased with the way Hayes has responded.

"As you learn more about your players, Kevin is a sensitive young man," Vigneault said. "If I had to do that over again, I might not do it the same way. As a coach, sometimes you try different things and you learn different things from testing your players different ways. He's a good kid, real sensitive. He wants to do well.

"Sometimes you've got to go through tougher times to learn and get better. He's gone through that, but I've got to say the last two, three weeks he's been playing extremely well at both ends of the rink for us, protecting the puck and doing a lot of good things with it, using his teammates better. I am very pleased with his progression right now."

A season ago, Hayes finished his rookie campaign with 17 goals and 28 assists in 79 games, and was a plus-15. In 19 playoff games, he had two goals and five assists before the Rangers were eliminated at home by the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

At the start of this season, the Rangers expected much more from Hayes. He accumulated 14 points (six goals and eight assists) in the first 21 games before hitting the drought and ultimately being scratched.

"He wasn't very good," one NHL scout said. "He is a guy who needs to be engaged all the time, but he won't be. He will have great games because he is so skilled and big, but he can have stretches where you won't notice him for games at a time because he is not a real high-compete guy."

Hayes' complacency appears to be gone, and the compete level and production have returned. It has to be there down the stretch and into the playoffs.

"He is starting to play better," one Eastern Conference general manager said. "First half, he seemed to struggle with sophomore slump, but he's finding his game now. When he's skating and making plays, it makes the Rangers a much more dangerous team."