PHILADELPHIA – Ryan Miller stopped a shot from his knees and with six players in the crease. He saved one with Buffalo down two men. Any way Philadelphia tried to attack him, Miller never buckled.
He was perfect in net and the Sabres took quick control of the series.
Miller stopped 35 shots for his second career post-season shutout and Patrick Kaleta scored to lift the Buffalo Sabres to a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series Thursday night.
“It’s important to establish that we can skate with these guys,” Miller said. “We like where we’re at, but that team over there has a lot of fight, and we’ll have to be ready for them.”
Miller stopped every shot under all types of pressure and carried the Sabres to the clutch opening win. The teams have met eight times in the post-season and the Game 1 winner won the series each time.
Kaleta snapped the scoreless tie early in the third period when he powered a rebound past rookie Sergei Bobrovsky.
No team was more resilient in last year’s playoffs than the Flyers. They trailed Boston 3-0 in the East semifinals before taking the series and playing until a Game 6 loss to Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals.
Game 2 is Saturday in Philadelphia.
The Sabres—10 points out of a playoffs spot on Jan. 17—cracked the scoreless tie 5:56 into the third period on Kaleta’s second career post-season goal.
Buffalo won a fight for the puck along the boards and dumped it across the zone to Marc-Andre Gragnani. He fired a slapper from the top of the circle and Kaleta knocked in the rebound from the low slot for the 1-0 lead.
Kaleta, denied earlier in the game on a rebound, was healthy enough to play at a perfect time after missing most of the last month of the season with a bruised knee.
Miller was flawless from there and the Sabres—the hottest team in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1—kept rolling in the post-season.
Once a rowdy and devastating home-ice advantage, Philadelphia continues to struggle at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers dropped six straight games at home before snapping that streak in the season finale. They now have a Game 1 loss after dropping Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals here last season.
Miller was the reason for their latest loss.
“I tried to stay contained, stay cool,” Miller said. “I know, in the first period, that it didn’t always look that way. But I knew I’d get some help around me.”
The Flyers attacked the net with a barrage of shots that went nowhere except straight into Miller. The former MVP of the Olympics stopped Kimmo Timonen on a slapper midway through the second period when the Flyers held a 5-on-3 advantage.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette called timeout when the Flyers had 34 seconds of a two-man power play.
They came up empty on a power play that has failed them down the stretch.
“It’s a momentum killer,” Flyers defenceman Matt Carle said. “I think it was the turning point.”
It wasn’t the only wasted opportunity. The Flyers went 0-for-5 on the power play and missed 11 shots.
The Sabres stuffed the crease and the puck had no chance of finding the back of the net. With the aid of the stout defence, Miller stopped 16 shots in the second period.
“Bob was good. Ryan was even better,” Flyers centre Danny Briere said. “There will be nights like that. If we keep playing like we did tonight, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Sabres got rough to protect their net, with defenceman Chris Butler shoving James van Riemsdyk flat on his back.
“Toughness is being hard on the puck, and getting in front of shots, and that’s what we do as a team,” Kaleta said.
The Flyers could have used some extra protection on the blue line but they played without Chris Pronger.
Pronger, a former NHL MVP, has been sidelined since having hand surgery in March. He also missed time with a foot injury andwas limited to just 50 games this season.
He skated and held a stick during practice this week, but he wasn’t ready for Game 1. He remains day to day. Pronger has said he’s very confident he’ll play against the Sabres.
“If Pronger were available, he could be a difference-maker,” Laviolette said. “That speaks for itself. But he’s not.”
Bobrovsky made the routine saves and covered some tough ones that had to help calm some playoff debut jitters for the Russian rookie. He had 24 saves.
The Flyers came oh-so close 6 minutes into the game when van Riemsdyk pounded the puck off the post. Miller later stuffed Flyers captain Mike Richards on a backhand attempt and it was already clear that Game 1 would belong to the goalies. Richards played 18:20 a day after missing practice with what he called a head cold.
Both teams had playoff energy to burn. There were a series of scrums and punishing hits that signal playoff hockey—especially in Philadelphia.
Fans dressed in matching orange shirts and erupted when Lauren Hart, the daughter of longtime former Flyers broadcaster Gene Hart, sang “God Bless America,” alternating lyrics with Kate Smith, who was on a video image. Smith’s rendition of the song has been a rallying anthem for the Flyers since the mid 1970s.
They’ll need more than superstition to solve Miller.
Notes: The Flyers had home ice in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2004. … Buffalo finished the regular season with only one regulation loss in the last 13 games, and went 16-4-4 after Terry Pegula purchased the team in late February.