Sabres put their trust in Miller

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! SportsNovember 11, 2008

After an 8-2-2 start, with Ryan Miller playing like a combination of Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito and Patrick Roy in goal, the Buffalo Sabres had the look of a team that could expect to be playing as summer approached.

Put a defensively-oriented team on the ice with a guy doing a swell impersonation of Alexander Ovechkin up front and a goaltender who was letting in a goal every 10 days or so and your chances of playing into late May and early June are, oh, pretty good.

Lindy Ruff, though, has been around the NHL longer than he cares to admit.

And the Sabres' coach chuckled at the notion that his team, or even his goaltender, had proven much of anything after 10 games.

"It's still early in the year," Ruff said last week. "You're basing it on not a lot of games."

And after a 5-4 overtime loss to Atlanta on Friday and a 3-1 loss to Boston on Saturday, the Sabres have put plans for a June victory parade aside for the time being.

Buffalo missed the playoffs last year, the fourth time in the past six years it's skipped the postseason party. Part of the reason, Miller said, was attitude.

"For some, I think we didn't buy into what Lindy was preaching every night," Miller said. "His approach to the game works. Play as a team, keep it simple, be responsible, be accountable, you find out it works. We knew coming into this year we had to get back to that kind of game."

And for the most part, starting with Miller, they have done just that. Miller has been mostly outstanding, occasionally sensational. Despite allowing eight goals in the Sabres' lost weekend, he still sits near the top of the NHL's goaltending leaders.

Miller's 2.04 goals-against average is fourth in the league and his save percentage of .929 is sixth. He's also tied for second in the league with a pair of shutouts. More importantly than his statistics, though, he's shown up virtually every night and given the Sabres a chance to win.

And because the players have realized that Miller has given them a chance to win, they've worked harder to help him. The result has been one of the league's stingiest teams and one of its early-season success stories.

Buffalo is 8-3-3 with 19 points, on pace for 111, which would be the second-best mark in franchise history.

The club is a collection of mostly homegrown no-names. One-time first-round selection Thomas Vanek has raised his game appreciably and given the Sabres the dynamic threat they've lacked in recent years.

He's scored 12 goals, including five on the power play, in 14 games, as he's roared out of the gate. In a conference with elite goal scorers such as Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, no one has filled more nets than Vanek.

"Really, he's been tremendous and he's come out and played like a high-level player in this league," Ruff said. "A guy playing like he is playing is a difference maker."

Miller is another of those difference makers, a guy so gifted the Sabres signed him to a five-year, $31.25 million extension in July despite a year left on his contract because they were convinced he was the kind of goaltender who could take them on lengthy postseason journeys.

Many around the league had expected Miller, who played at Michigan State, to play out this season and then sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Miller had heard all of the talk.

"You know, I'm happy here and I felt this was a good place for me and I had been treated well here and felt I fit in well here, with the organization and with the guys and in the community," Miller said. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I wanted to be here and I didn't want to go anywhere else, so I took the contract when it was offered to me."

And that sets the Sabres up to be contenders in the East for several years. A good, young goaltender will help mask a lot of other weaknesses. Miller, 28, will be hitting his prime just as his new contract kicks in.

He played 76 games last year, but wore down badly at the end of the year. He's 6 feet 2, but weighs less than 170 pounds and had trouble handling the rigors of that much work. He spent much of the offseason working on his conditioning and learning about nutrition, because teams don't sign goaltenders to long-term, big-money deals to play them every third game.

Buffalo fans are going to get plenty used to Miller over the next five-plus seasons or so. And whether they like what they see or not will have a lot to do with, as Ruff says, what the style of play around him is.

"You can't take your goaltender for granted and leave him exposed or you're going to pay for it," Ruff said. "This league is too good. But if we help him, he's got the kind of talent to do some really good things for us."

He's shown glimpses of that so far. And when Miller is on, playing the Sabres is no fun task, be it October, November or, dare we suggest, June.

"Hey, it's every player's goal to be playing then, but you really don't talk about the playoffs in November," Miller said. "We missed the playoffs last year. We're not going to get that far ahead of ourselves. We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have a lot to make up for. We know that. It's been a good start, but it's not the start that is important. We all learned that lesson last year, but hopefully, it's not forgotten."