TORONTO – Ryan Miller has rediscovered balance. And the wins have started coming for the Buffalo Sabres.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has been playing some of his best hockey of the season over the last month, when the Sabres have overtaken Carolina and moved into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Miller entered Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on a personal 9-3-3 roll that had seen him surrender more than three goals in just two of those 15 starts.
A big key to the late-season surge is Miller’s health. He came out of training camp with some nagging hip and groin problems that forced him to sit out games at the beginning of November.
“It’s just little things that kind of add up,” Miller said Tuesday morning. “You don’t feel great but every player plays with (small injuries). … It’s just as a goalie you’re not used to certain feelings when you’re out there.
“At that time of year you want to get a lot of work and I was trying to ease off on the work. It’s tough to find a balance.”
The Sabres were riding a three-game winning streak entering Tuesday’s game thanks in large part to Miller, who was named the NHL’s first star Monday. He had two shutouts and stopped 75-of-77 shots faced during those victories.
“It’s no secret your goaltender is usually your biggest player and he hasn’t made any mistakes this past week,” said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.
Some of the credit also goes to the team’s overall commitment to defence. That was missing when Buffalo opened the season by going 3-9-2.
“Obviously, (Miller) missed some time earlier in the year out of training cap with the injury, which hurt him,” said Ruff. “And you know we had a stretch where we didn’t play that well. Away from the puck, we were a pretty sloppy team. We played some good games but made big mistakes that cost us.
“Recently we’ve tightened it up.”
Miller agrees with the coach’s assessment.
“We’ve done a good job cleaning things up and it makes my reads easier when I only have a few options in front of me,” he said. “Rather than standing still, I can flow with the game, I can move my feet a little bit, I can dictate play with the guys around me.
“That’s when I play my best—if I’m waiting on pucks or waiting on plays or waiting for things to happen, I don’t think I’m as effective.”
The Sabres entered Tuesday’s game with a five-point cushion over the ninth-place Hurricanes and a seven-point lead on 10th-place Toronto. A victory over the Leafs would essentially eliminate them from the playoff chase.
Buffalo is starting to think about the possibility of making a long playoff run because the team has been sharp down the stretch—something the Sabres didn’t have working in their favour last spring when they stumbled in and lost to Boston in the first round.
“I think last year was one of those situations where we didn’t have to grind quite as hard as some of those teams and we did have some stuff that popped up that became problems in the second half of that season,” said Miller. “We didn’t have a good record in the second half of last year. … You can’t just will it or hit the switch and hope it happens.
“It’s something where you want to be playing that kind of game consistently all throughout the season.”