It was after practice in the middle of November when Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was cautiously asked about the “O word.”
“Well,” he said, matter-of-factly, “you’re not the first person to use it, so it’s all right.” Yes, Miller’s been dealing with these questions since his rookie NHL season in 2005-06, when he was named an alternate to the U.S. team for the Olympics.
Four years later, there’s no dancing around the topic. Miller is at the top of his game – first or second in nearly every goaltender statistic – during a season that just happens to coincide with the Vancouver Olympics.
So being the first or 100th person to ask the 29-year-old from East Lansing, Mich., about playing on the world stage is no reason to apologize. Miller will even play along, joking about the “obvious U.S. Team candidate” tag that has been applied to his name.
“All of a sudden everybody’s saying it,” Miller said. “Somebody, maybe should’ve coined that and put it in the court system to make some money off of it.”
The smart money is on Miller to be on the U.S. roster, which will be announced Jan. 1.
General manager Brian Burke said as much during a recent teleconference: “(Miller’s) not the only goaltender that we’ll be taking there.” Boston goalie Tim Thomas is also a candidate, but so much for Burke keeping things secret.
And yet, the buzz can go too far regarding Miller, who draws the line when it comes to questions regarding the chances of him winning the Vezina Trophy this season.
“C’mon,” he said, last week, rolling his eyes. “It’s like, 25 games into the season.”
It’s one step at a time for Miller, who’s already accomplished plenty. Through 27 games, he led the league with a 1.88 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He was tied for the league lead with four shutouts entering Wednesday night’s games and, with a 19-6-2 record, was second in wins behind New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur (20).
He’s played so well that Burke and U.S. coach Ron Wilson – both hold the same roles with Toronto, Buffalo’s division rival – have already seen enough of Miller, who is 2-0 against the Leafs this season, including a 38-save shutout last month.
“We’ve been too impressed with Ryan Miller,” Burke said, with a laugh.
“Yeah,” added Wilson. “I think they should rest him especially when they play Toronto. He’s single-handedly beat us twice.”
The Leafs aren’t the only ones complaining.
Miller’s been so consistent that his worst slump is a three-game stretch in which he went 0-2-1. And his workhorse effort has the Sabres leading the Northeast Division.
Miller’s ascension to the top of the goalie ranks has been a gradual one. It’s the culmination of a decade-long pursuit for perfection at a position where that objective is realistically unattainable. And it’s a pursuit that required Miller to develop a keen mental focus to deal with the ever-high expectations that come with the job.
It began during his three-year career at Michigan State. Though he set the NCAA record with 26 career shutouts, won the 2001 Hobey Baker award and posted a 73-19-14 record, there were friends and fans who questioned why Miller couldn’t register a shutout every time he played.
And it continued in Buffalo, where he was idolized for helping the Sabres reach the East finals in 2006 and ’07, then criticized for the team missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
Now suddenly, in the midst of his fifth NHL campaign, Miller’s time has arrived.
“Look at his numbers,” Brodeur said recently. “Tremendous. He’s in control.”
Brodeur, a candidate to start for Team Canada, has noticed a maturity in Miller that goalies attain only through experience.
“You cannot be a top goalie if you go up and down all the time. You can stop 50 shots, but if you get pulled three times or whatever, it’s all about being consistent,” Brodeur said. “And I think he’s getting that now.”
Miller regards Brodeur’s comments as high praise, because consistency has been what Miller considers to be his final hurdle in becoming a complete goalie.
Though he’s won 30 or more games in each of his four NHL seasons, Miller has endured significant slumps. Two years ago, he got off to a 5-9-1 start and then struggled through a 1-5-4 skid. Last year, he went through a 5-7-2 slump.
Buffalo’s relatively young lineup didn’t help. Miller’s mettle and focus were tested when he put himself into a position to fill the team’s leadership void after the Sabres lost co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere to free agency in the summer of 2007.
It’s no coincidence that the Sabres brought in veteran players like Craig Rivet last year and Mike Grier this summer, moves that allowed Miller to concentrate on his game.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has seen a change in his approach.
“He’s learned when to speak up, and he’s learned what he’s got to focus on,” Ruff said. “And there’s other players that can learn from that. Before you look over the fence, your job has to be done first. I think Ryan’s learned how to balance that.”
It’s also a reason why Miller has capably balanced the dual role as Sabres goalie first and Olympic hopeful second without much distraction.
“It can all get to be too much. So right now, I’m on the right path,” Miller said. “I’m hoping I’m making a good case for why I should be there, and that’s all I can do. But my case for being in the Olympics is making the case for the Sabres to be a playoff team.”