BUFFALO, N.Y. – How quickly Ryan Miller forgets.
Having led Buffalo back to the playoffs for the first time in three years, the Sabres goaltender politely apologized for being in no mood to assess what he’s accomplished this season. Winning an Olympic silver medal and a franchise-record 41 games take a back seat for Miller as he turns his attention toward Thursday, when Buffalo opens the NHL playoffs hosting Northeast Division rival Boston.
“I’m not going to sit here and reflect. Sorry,” Miller said this week. “To start reminiscing now, it’s going to make for a short post-season. I don’t want to do it.”
Miller’s reluctance is another indication of the keen-eyed focus that has allowed him to emerge as an elite goaltender this season. He’s become the unquestioned leader of a still young Sabres roster that’s proven its finally matured since the summer of 2007, when the team lost co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency.
Drury and Briere were the key components on the Buffalo teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and ’07. This time around, it’s in Miller the Sabres trust.
“Not to analyse the whole thing, I feel when Ryan’s playing his best, we’re a very tough team to beat,” captain Craig Rivet said. “I don’t think I really need to elaborate much more than that.”
Miller’s numbers have spoken for themselves at the NHL and international level.
In being honoured as the Olympic men’s hockey tournament MVP, the U.S. player went 5-1 at the Vancouver Games in February, losing the gold-medal game to Canada on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal.
In helping Buffalo win the Northeast title, Miller went 41-18-8 to surpass by one the single-season record he set for victories in 2007. Already mentioned as both a Vezina Trophy and NHL MVP candidate, Miller finished second in the league in goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (92.9).
The only one to better Miller’s numbers just happens to be the goalie the Sabres will be facing, Boston’s Tuukka Rask – though the rookie appeared in 24 fewer games than Miller.
Games played aside, the rookie’s emergence in supplanting Tim Thomas as the Bruins starter is the reason Boston reached the playoffs for a third straight season. Rask went 22-12-5 overall, and keyed the Bruins late playoff surge by going 4-1-1 in his final six starts.
A year after winning the Eastern Conference regular-season title, the sixth-seeded Bruins enter the playoffs a much different team. They’ve adopted a defensive-minded approach after losing star forward Marc Savard to a season-ending concussion on March 7.
“We had some ups and downs, but I thought it made us stronger and we found a way to get to the playoffs,” Patrice Bergeron said. “We believe in ourselves. Even though some people were counting us out, I don’t think we were. And that’s all that mattered.”
The Bruins had the edge on Buffalo, winning the season series 4-2, including an overtime and shootout win. All six games were close, with four decided by a goal and the other two decided by two goals.
“We’ve had success against them this year, that doesn’t mean we’re the favourites,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
The Bruins are hampered by injuries. Aside from Savard, they’re minus defencemen Dennis Seidenberg (forearm) and Mark Stuart (pinkie).
Savard’s absence hampers a Bruins attack that’s lacked offence this season. Boston finished 29th in the NHL in scoring this year.
The Sabres are getting healthier. Leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek returned last weekend after missing six games with a groin injury. Top-line centre Tim Connolly is set to return after missing the final nine games with a foot injury.
Buffalo’s offence features a balanced attack. Led by Derek Roy’s 69 points (26 goals, 43 assists), the Sabres were one of only three teams to have 12 players with 10 or more goals this season.
What counts more is having a difference maker in Miller, who showed no signs of fatigue by going 11-4-1 following the Olympic break.
“He can steal a game on his own,” forward Jason Pominville said. “What he did with the American team can only put a smile on our faces and say, ‘Wow, hopefully, he can lead us the way he led that team.”‘