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Miller, Sabres Come Up Short Again

April 27, 2011 - Matt Spielman
This is not meant to be a bash Ryan Miller column although it will probably come off that way.

The Buffalo Sabres need to decide what kind of team they want to be. If Ryan Miller is going to be their second-highest paid player, he needs to be better than a 2.57 GAA career goaltender. Miller's 2009-10 Vezina Trophy season was a mirage -- an exception to the norm. For the rest of his career, Miller has been between a 2.53 GAA and 2.73 GAA consistently. I don't have a problem with his career numbers as long as the Sabres realize what he is. If the Sabres want to be a Stanley Cup contender, they need to score more in front of a goaltender with those numbers or help get those numbers lower with a stronger defense corps.

Not that Miller's career numbers should be surprising, he was only a fifth-round draft pick and was nowhere near a phenom in his first couple of professional seasons. Miller went 6-8-1 with a 2.63 GAA and a .902 save percentage when called up in his first season following college and then had a meltdown in his second professional season with the Sabres, going 0-3 with a .795 save percentage and a 5.06 GAA before being sent to Rochester. No player in the NHL may have benefited more from the lockout than Miller. He has been solid since the work stoppage, but until last season's Vezina/Olympic campaign, he never stole games like Sabres fans may have expected following the career of Dominik Hasek.

What is more concerning about Miller is his play in big games. In 2001, Miller's Michigan State Spartans were No. 1 in the country for 19 straight weeks before losing their Frozen Four semifinal game, 2-0, to the University of North Dakota. In that game, Miller gave up a goal early in the first period on the Fighting Sioux's first shot of the game and the Spartans never rebounded.

The following season, the Spartans were again dominant before Miller gave up another early first-period goal in a 2-0 loss to Colorado College.

In the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, the Sabres led Carolina, 2-1, heading into the third period before the Hurricanes scored three third-period goals on Miller on their way to stunning the Sabres and eventually winning the Stanley Cup.

The following year, after Buffalo won its only Presidents' Trophy, Miller gave up a very weak overtime goal to Daniel Alfredsson as the Senators breezed past the Sabres before losing to Anaheim in the Cup Finals.

Miller's next stop on the national stage was the inaugural Winter Classic played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. Despite poor conditions, the Sabres and Penguins played to a regulation tie before Sidney Crosby actually lost the puck in the shootout and still beat Miller for the victory.

And don't get me wrong, Miller was the Most Outstanding Player at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and carried Team USA to the Gold Medal game against Canada, but again when the going got tough, Crosby beat Miller for the Gold Medal, leaving the Americans to wear Silver around their necks.

Now I don't think anybody expected Miller to match Hasek's .925 postseason save percentage and 2.02 GAA while with the Sabres, but too many close games have gone against Buffalo with Miller in net.

Tuesday night's Game 7 in Philadelphia was a tall enough task for the Sabres to conquer with a strong Miller, but once again when the going got tough, Miller faltered. After a strong first period that ended with a tough screen/deflection goal for the Flyers, Miller struggled in the second and eventually was pulled after Ville Leino beat him clean on a bad-angle slapshot early in the third period. But that could have been expected after seeing Miller's career numbers at the Wells Fargo Center. The 30-year-old goaltender entered with a 6-4 record supported by a 3.07 GAA and an .896 save percentage in the arena.

Now again, I do believe Miller can be a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender if the Sabres identify which kind of team they want to be. If they want to be a high-scoring offensive threat, they need to add a piece or two on offense to match the Conference Finals teams of the mid-2000s. If they want to be a lockdown, hard-working defensive team, the front office should add a tough top-line defenseman to join Tyler Myers and play 25-28 minutes per game and match the successful teams of the late 1990s.

Lindy Ruff has shown that he can coach either way and there is room for enough turnover this offseason for management to match the roster to its philosophy.


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Blog Photos

With the puck from the goal scored by Philadelphia Flyers' Danny Briere in the net, Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller looks out to center ice in the second period in Game 7 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey series Tuesday, in Philadelphia. AP photo