TORONTO – There might not be a lonelier or more troubled place in hockey this season than the Buffalo Sabres goal crease. And yet it is in that eight-foot wide strip of blue paint where Ryan Miller has discovered a Zen-like serenity over the past few months.
Playing behind a team on pace to score the fewest goals in the modern history of the NHL – even after Buffalo’s second straight three-goal explosion in a 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto on Wednesday – Miller has been nothing short of brilliant.
Consider that the Sabres sit dead last in the NHL standings even though Miller is tied for fifth overall in save percentage at .927. That puts him ahead of Jonathan Bernier, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury, among many others, and just a hair behind his own numbers from the Vezina Trophy-winning campaign of 2009-10.
In some ways, this one has been even more impressive because of the grace he’s shown under considerable fire. For an understanding of what it is like to play goal for this team, you need look no further than counterpart Jhonas Enroth’s comments after a shootout loss to Florida last week: “It is tough to win with this team,” he candidly told reporters.
You will not hear anything similar from the 33-year-old Miller, who entered a contract year on a rebuilding team with the very large challenge of having to prove something to USA Hockey’s management group just to secure an invite to the Olympics. It wouldn’t be a surprise now if he ends up being their No. 1 man in Sochi next month.
And while those of us on the outside wonder about how the veteran continues to shine on a struggling team, Miller merely shrugs his shoulders. It’s almost as if his uncertain future has brought about a mental clarity that has helped keep any potential distractions at bay.
“You just play,” Miller said after making 36 saves against the Leafs. “I’m in the NHL and my job is to give the team a chance to win. It doesn’t stop because we haven’t been scoring as much or right now we’re in a tough place in the standings.
“If I change my job, I’m quickly out of the NHL.”
The only job change he’s currently facing is the address of his employer. Pat LaFontaine, the Sabres president of hockey operations, has made it very clear that the team would love to welcome him back for a 12th season (and more) if he’s interested. If not, new Buffalo general manager Tim Murray will have to at least explore some trade options prior to the March 5 deadline – which is only 15 games away from now.
Miller is in a tricky spot after seeing friends Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad shipped out of town in recent years. He grew up with those players and said prior to training camp that he wasn’t sure where he fit into the current group. He likely still doesn’t know.
In the meantime, he’s tried to focus on fighting hard for whichever collection of players is in front of him each night. The team has enjoyed some modest success of late – Miller has seven wins in his last 11 starts – and there is a feeling that they have to play like they’re battling for a playoff spot even though that’s clearly not the case.
“(I have) to just keep doing a night’s work and that should be setting the tone for the guys and letting them know I’ll do my job if they do their job,” said Miller. “When we find the right mix or the right chemistry or the right group or whatever it’s going to be here, that’s what you’re waiting for.
“You can’t turn it on and off like a light switch so I’m just going to try and keep it on.”
That attitude has gone a long way inside the Sabres dressing room. Miller is extremely competitive and has been known to be the type of goaltender that would occasionally lose his cool when things weren’t going well around him.
Yet despite this disaster of a season, particularly in October and November, there has been basically none of that on display. Interim coach Ted Nolan raves about how solid of citizen he’s been.
“I’m really impressed,” said Nolan.
Added defenceman Tyler Myers: “He seems to elevate his game with every team (we play). I don’t know what it is. It’s amazing to see what kind of goalie he is, to be on the same team with him, to play with him every day. We’re lucky to have him back there, especially this year.”
Perhaps most important of all is that Miller seems to be enjoying himself. He mocked applause after Toronto’s third goal on Wednesday because he thought one of the officials was at fault for helping the Leafs keep the puck in the offensive zone and even cracked a post-game joke about allowing future Olympic teammate Phil Kessel to beat him with a nice wrist shot.
“Well, good for Phil – get him going for the Olympics I guess,” said Miller.
The good news for USA Hockey is that he’s going as well. That might just be something another NHL team can find a use for down the stretch, too.