TORONTO – The paint has barely dried on Ryan Miller’s new St. Louis Blues mask, and the veteran goaltender is still adjusting to life with his new team.
Miller was very used to Sabres hockey after eight-plus seasons as the man in net in Buffalo. Ten games into this next chapter, he’s 7-2-1 with impeccable stats but is still trying to iron out some subtle elements of his game.
“It’s just more learning about our team and setting up for tendencies,” Miller said Monday at Air Canada Centre. “You get used to playing with a team in different situations over the course of a couple years sometimes and tendencies come out and you kind of look for certain things. Here, you don’t really have that, you’ve got to kind of figure it out.”
A lot has been figured out already: The Blues know Miller is a stellar goaltender, and they’re already in the playoffs thanks to some remarkable consistency this season. A bulk of that happened with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott between the pipes, which is a testament to coach Ken Hitchcock’s shot-blocking system and those goalies’ ability to play behind it.
“For a goalie that plays aggressive, it’s an adjustment because sometimes pucks are bouncing the wrong direction,” Hitchcock said. “Went through the same thing (in Dallas) with Ed Belfour, and it took Eddie 30 days before he caught on to the way we were playing, and once he caught on, then his skill took over and he was great.”
In his first season with the Stars, Belfour led the NHL with a 1.88 goals-against average. By the end of his second season, he helped Dallas win the Stanley Cup.
Doing that now—not a year from now—is the goal for the Blues, who lead the Western Conference and are competing against the Boston Bruins for the Presidents’ Trophy. That was a realistic possibility before acquiring Miller and centre Steve Ott from the Sabres for Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier and two high draft picks.
But in getting Miller, a pending unrestricted free agent, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong saw his Cup-contending team and raised it by pushing some more chips into the centre of the table.
“Management believed that we wanted to give up important parts of our future for today’s team and hopefully they believe that’s a sign of our belief in them,” Armstrong said Monday. “That’s what it was meant to show was the belief in this group that they can win, and we wanted to give them every opportunity to do that.”
That has gone well so far, as the Blues are 9-2-1 since the trade, with a couple of Elliott victories thrown in. Of course Elliott has also played under Hitchcock for almost three full seasons.
Miller is in the infancy of that learning process right now.
“I think he’s still in the adjustment stage,” Hitchcock said. “I think he’s had a good impact, but so did Jaro and Brian. There’s nothing wrong with Jaro and Brian, either. I think with Ryan Miller, the impact he’s had, he’s just sorting it out on the ice, getting better every day, but the impact he’s had is in his professionalism. The way he carries himself and the way he handles himself in high-pressure situations is contagious.”
So far, Miller has faced fewer high-pressure, high-stress situations than he had recently in Buffalo. He led the league in shots faced during the lockout-shortened 2013 season (31.75 a game) and saw an average of 35.28 in his 40 with the Sabres this year.
In 10 starts for the Blues, Miller is facing 23.8 shots a game.
“It’s certainly not something anybody wants to hear a goalie complain about seeing fewer shots,” Miller said. “It’s still the NHL, you’re going to get quality opportunities, the other team’s going to get chances. So you just have to stay ready.”
Miller endured a long shot drought Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers and has already seen fewer than 20 in a game three times in a Blues uniform. His season low with the Sabres was 22.
Armstrong said he and the management staff have discussed the topic with Hitchock and the other coaches.
“It’s hard to maintain that focus, or it’s different,” Armstrong said. “I think having the number of games we have left, I think it’s going to be good for him.”
Facing the Leafs should be another test in that department, given that Toronto—which has lost five straight—has one of the worst shot discrepancies in the NHL, getting outshot 36-28 on average.
Of course Miller can lean on his strong history against the Leafs: 31-15-3 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. The 34-year-old played that off by explaining that it was fun to play in games between the Sabres and Leafs.
“It’s a good rivalry and I always liked the games, whether coming here or in our own rink it was always a rivalry-type game,” Miller said. “If you count all the fights in the stands in Buffalo and all the craziness that happens when you come to a hockey-crazy city like Toronto, there’s just a lot going on.”
Miller considers Tuesday night’s game starting from scratch because he’s not with Buffalo anymore.
“Different team, different look,” he said.
As Miller figures out how to deal with his different team and different look in St. Louis, Armstrong knows in the end the goalie will not be measured on how many shots he faces.
“Playoff hockey in general the shots are down—everyone just plays tighter and the scores are lower,” he said. “Ultimately he has to make the big saves. That’s why we brought him here. He has to make the saves you’re not supposed to make.”
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