There are hippie communes that don't have the introspection and emotional understanding that Ryan Miller has about himself. Many athletes know their bodies; Miller is hockey's self-diagnosing psychotherapist, dissecting and deliberating over the mental aspect of the game until the factors behind his play become apparent.
That manifests itself as honesty. Bluntness. An eagerness to cut through the cliché B.S. found every time a camera's "record" light flickers on inside an NHL dressing room.
It's Miller calling Milan Lucic "gutless" after their run-in, and Miller later admitting he later got the benefit of a goalie interference call because of that steamrolling. It's Miller speaking out at the trade deadline about Paul Gaustad being sent to the Predators: "If I had any more influence Paul would still be here."
Hence, Miller is framed as the Emo Goalie, Dashboard Confessional On Ice. He's seen as a whiner, he's seen as a complainer, he's seen as hypocritical.
When you're playing poorly, all of that stuff bubbles to the top of the column in the newspaper and online, seeping into locker room conversations as the media searched for "WHY?". When you're winning, it's the stuff that doesn't even merit a mention, except within the nostalgic context you're reading here.
Ryan Miller has changed the conversation in the second half of the season; and, in the process, has the Buffalo Sabres in a prime position to rally for a playoff spot.
How? By following the two tenets of Miller's hockey philosophy: Keep the expectations low and the personal amusement high.
Simply put: Ryan Miller thrives as the underdog, like in Vancouver two years ago when he backstopped the Americans to within a goal of the gold. "The expectation for us was to have a good tournament, and anything else was a bonus. So we really just jumped onto the fact that we were counted out," he told Vanity Fair.
At the start of the season, the Buffalo Sabres were marching out of Pegulaville with fancy new free agents and hype that reached low Earth orbit. Miller was being chatted up as the Vezina Trophy favorite.
Miller told ESPN last week that the preseason hype "hurt our mentality and approach. Instead of building toward smaller goals as a team and creating the culture and identity of a championship-caliber team, we skipped major steps in our approach."
[Playoff Death Watch: Maple Leafs, Hurricanes on life support]
That went for the team and for Miller. He struggled along with the Sabres, to the tune of a 12-15-2 record, a 3.07 GAA and a save percentage of .899 before the All-Star break.
Jhonas Enroth was earning more playing time due to Miller's inconsistency. "What's wrong with Ryan Miller?" articles were being written seemingly on the hour. At one point, a Ryan Miller-for-Patrick Kane trade notion turned the hockey media into the HF Boards for a week or two.
Justin from The Goalie Guild believed Miller's struggles weren't technical but psychological:
I simply feel like Ryan Miller's frustrations, collisions, tough losses, and tough love from the fans have distracted him to the point where he's no longer living in the moment. His mind is cluttered with too much noise, and it has leaked into his game-by-game performance. I have been asked so many times in the last week why Miller is struggling, so I can only imagine how many times he's been asked the same thing by reporters. I certainly can't answer this question for you, because ultimately, I feel Miller's struggles stem directly from what is going on between his ears.
So perhaps the All-Star break was the great purge for Miller.
He's been 15-3-5 with a 1.94 GAA and a .935 save percentage since then, posting five shutouts in those 23 games.
Enroth has only seen action in two games since the ASG; Miller has led the Sabres' resurgence as the team's workhorse netminder.
Miller told ESPN that tuning out the early season criticism and concern was the key to his resurgence:
"This year, a lot of opinion I normally avoid or ignore was dragged into the locker room by the media, and I took it hard. But I kept working and searching for my comfort level. I finally remembered I love to play and I am not doing it for what people outside the locker think about me. I'm doing it because I love hockey and I love to win. I love making saves and being on a team. I love the challenge.
"As for doing anything differently. ... Goalie reflects team. Team reflects goalie. Once I was healthy I started building back my focus and awareness, and that took some time. ... I noticed my game turning when my mind was more at ease and I settled down and allowed the play to unfold."
This echoes Miller's mindset in the Vancouver Olympics: If you're not having fun, you're probably not playing well. As he said to Vanity Fair in 2010:
"For me, it was always about having fun," he said. "Even though my whole family played at a high level, it was always: 'Are you having fun going to the rink?' When things were tough or if I had a bad loss, my parents would talk to me, and they'd be like, 'Oh, yeah, it was a tough game—are you still having fun?' It comes down to that."
The Sabres enter Tuesday's game at the Washington Capitals tied in points (84) but trailing in actual victories (36-30). They trail the Ottawa Senators by four points and also have fewer wins. (The Florida Panthers are up three with a game in-hand.)
That's what makes tonight a must-win for Buffalo: They have to finish ahead of Washington to claim the No. 8 seed, if it comes down to that point. A win, and they control their own destiny. A loss … and they need help, staring down the barrel of the Pittsburgh Penguins next.
Take it one game at a time? Give 110-percent each game?
Ryan Miller cares not for your "every night's a new night" clichés.
"It's kinda just one big hockey game at this point," he said last week. "You just try to get all you can out of it."
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