ST. LOUIS — Ryan Miller is a star goalie, but he doesn’t have an endorsement deal with an equipment company. He wears one brand of pads and glove, another brand of blocker. He uses only what he thinks is best.
When breaking in a pair of pads, as he has been doing for a while now, he’ll put an old one on his right leg and a new one on his left and vice-versa. He’ll drop into the butterfly position. He’ll look closely. He’ll even take pictures. Sometimes he slices through a blocker with a knife so he can study the insides. Why this fabric? Why that plastic?
“I’m not saying he’s a modern-day Tony Esposito,” said former NHL goalie and current Blues TV analyst Darren Pang, referring to the Hall of Famer who was legendary for tinkering with his gear. “But he’s pretty detailed.”
This is the kind of guy the St. Louis Blues brought in to win the Stanley Cup – uncompromising, inquisitive, exact about everything from his equipment to his mindset to his technique to the team structure. He sweats the details so he doesn’t have to sweat them in the game. He tries to think of everything so he doesn’t have to think about anything but stopping the puck. The details can make the difference, especially in a situation like this.
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The Blues paid a high price for Miller before the trade deadline, acquiring him and Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, a prospect, a first-round pick and a third-rounder. They did it even though Miller is in the last year of his contract. They did it even though their smothering style allows few shots and Miller was a slight upgrade over Halak statistically. They hoped he could make the extra save when they needed it, help them win tight playoff games and put them over the top.
Now the Blues are beaten-up and have lost six straight games entering the first round, and they’re facing the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions and the second-best offensive team in the NHL in the regular season. St. Louis seems on edge. But Miller seems at ease. He joked with reporters about the 18 goals he allowed in his last five games, saying he didn’t think it was too bad and he wasn’t worried, and then he said something interesting.
“I’ve learned some things about playing with this group the last month-and-a-half, and I feel I’ve built my game to be in a good place this time of year,” Miller said. “Over the last year-and-a-half, two years, I think I’ve built a good attitude to play hockey the right way and be a good teammate. Right now it’s about coming together as a group, battling for your buddy and hunkering down and just going to work. That’s kind of what I’m putting my focus into. I’m just going to try and be there and do my job for the boys.”
A good attitude? To play the right way? To be a good teammate? What does Miller mean by that? Well, when you’re a perfectionist, imperfection can drive you nuts, and when you’re a goalie, being a good teammate can mean worrying about yourself. Miller had good times in Buffalo – two trips to the Eastern Conference final, a Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, a Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie – but the Sabres slipped and so did he. The frustration affected him. He called out problems like a captain.
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“I get pretty competitive and pretty emotional, and I think I just get myself into a bit of trouble going down that path,” Miller said. “With Buffalo, I would see situations that weren’t working, weren’t working, weren’t working. You get too worked up and too worried about it, and the stuff you’re supposed to take care of doesn’t work as well. … I’m trying to worry about things I can control, and ultimately it’s just my preparation.”
Miller said he had to learn to “let it go a little bit.” He was outstanding for a bad Buffalo team this season, with a .923 save percentage in 40 games. He was even better in the beginning for the Blues, with a .932 save percentage in eight games.
He struggled down the stretch, with an .882 save percentage in his last 11 games. But some things were out of his control – like the Blues’ post-Olympic fatigue and epidemic of injuries, which deteriorated their play – and he kept working on his adjustment. He had to learn to new verbiage and tendencies. He went from facing 35.3 shots per game on a team that allowed shots from the outside to 24.9 shots per game on a team that tries to block shots. Easier said than done. You can lose focus and miss a detail. Give up a goal, it’s magnified.
“We’re a hard team to play for, because it doesn’t come very often. but when it comes, it’s a doozy,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “You go 11 minutes, no shots on goal, and then it’s a one-timer from [Alex] Ovechkin. It ain’t the quantity, but the quality comes sometimes.”
Hitchcock said he was amazed Miller watched video of every shot on goal minutes after every game, and he volunteered something interesting, considering Miller’s comments. “He never points fingers, he just looks at himself,” Hitchcock said. “Never points a finger. Ever. He pauses and reflects and looks at himself. First he looks at himself, at his own game, and then he looks at how he fits in to the rest of the team game. That’s the part I love about him.”
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The Blues are relying on Miller. That’s why they got him. That’s why, after he allowed four goals in a loss to the Dallas Stars on March 29, they started him in their next game April 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers. “By going back to him in that Philly game, I think they said to him, ‘This is your ball,’ ” Pang said. Miller responded with a 31-save shutout against the Flyers. Now, on the heels of a losing streak, he needs to respond against the Blackhawks.
But Miller said he doesn’t view himself as the final piece, just “another piece.” He needs to focus on the details, not the big picture, and let go of the pressure in St. Louis the way he let go of the frustration in Buffalo.
“I feel I prepare well,” Miller said. “I prepare honestly. I do the job I'm asked of in practices, workouts and whatever. From there, I go out and try to compete as hard as I can and try to be prepared and have my body and mind ready at all times. I think that's the job.
“Ultimately, you're judged on how well you compete, and you try and go out and compete. Some nights, it's not going to work out. Some nights, people are going to think you're great. So you go out, battle and compete the best you can, and it's ultimately about what we think we can achieve with this group. I'm just trying to get inside that headspace, stay in that headspace, and not let anybody drag me or my teammates out of it.”
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