Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller is leading the league in almost every prominent statistical category and is a shoo-in right now to start in net for the young and exciting U.S. squad at the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver. That is to say, dude’s on a bit of a roll.
And while expectations are ramping up with every save made by the 29-year-old, it’s not something that is going to make Miller crack. After all, this netminder has been dealing with pressure for years and has made it his mission to be as mentally tough as can be.
This season, all that preparation has been on display. No one has more shutouts than Miller’s four, while his 1.88 goals-against average and .937 save percentage are also tops in the NHL. Sabres GM Darcy Regier knew the East Lansing, Mich., native had something special in store for Buffalo this year.
“He was very focused,” Regier said. “It was something we saw right from the start of training camp. It was something we all recognized.”
And while Miller’s famously slight frame has never slowed him down, he has grown in other aspects of life, specifically the mental side of the game.
“He’s really taken ownership of his career,” Regier noted. “The self control, the mental discipline, his reading of the game – he knows what the puckhandlers’ options are.”
And Miller’s mental state will be tested many times this season. Not only are the Sabres better than expected – and having missed the playoffs the past two years, this is a good time to get back in there – but Miller has usurped Boston’s Tim Thomas as the expected No. 1 goaltender for the U.S. Olympic team.
All that means a lot of cameras and microphones in Miller’s face, especially in big hockey markets such as Montreal, where the netminder was exposed to The Horde.
“There were all these questions about the Vezina and the Hart Trophies,” Miller said. “I’ve played what, 27 games this year? I’m hoping to play 45 more, so it’s a little early for all that.”
Starting with his career at Michigan State, where he posted 26 career shutouts and sub-2.00 goals-against averages all three years at East Lansing, Miller has been dealing with other people’s expectations.
“It got to the point after wins where people would tell me, ‘hey good game, but no shutout, what happened?’ ” Miller recalled. “It’s like, what?”
Even State’s other players were hopping on the Miller train. Assistant coach Tom Newton recalls getting on his forwards one night for their performance.
“One of the guys turned to me,” Newton noted, “and said, ‘hey coach, don’t worry: Ryan’s in the zone tonight.’ He was there for us day in, day out, game in and game out.”
In the meantime, Miller was crafting his game, working toward excellence. When the lights went out at State’s rink during a summer training session, Miller did movement drills while others waited around. He learned all he could under legendary Spartans coach Ron Mason, whose last season corresponded with Miller’s.
“He was a very knowledgeable coach who played a great system,” Miller said. “It was defensively responsible, which helped me a lot. I thought we had a great team…every weekend was important.”
Regier, who drafted Miller just before his Michigan State days began, has seen precisely where his star goaltender has come from and knows this isn’t the end of it.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of maturation on his part,” Regier said. “Physical, mental, I think that’s his hallmark – continuous learning.”
And as the rest of the NHL is learning this season, Miller will not be easy to beat this season – on any stage.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.