BUFFALO, N.Y. – It’s more than an hour after the Buffalo Sabres ended practice, and goaltender Ryan Miller can still be found in full gear roaming his familiar crease at the east end of HSBC Arena.
No, Miller doesn’t need any more time tinkering on his already ultra-efficient puck-stopping style. With three cameras focusing in on him and a half-dozen people in street clothes looking on, Miller’s busy filming a promotional spot for an international sports equipment company.
This is part of the price of fame that comes a season after Miller—the face of the Sabres—won the Vezina Trophy and became the star of the Winter Games. His work never seems done.
“Nope,” Miller says without complaint, as he finally makes his way to the locker-room. “Always on.”
That is what the Sabres are counting on from their star in preparing to open a season in which coach Lindy Ruff doesn’t shy from declaring his team’s Stanley Cup objective.
In answering a question about Miller, Ruff quickly segued into what he sees as the team’s bigger picture.
“Our goal here as a team is to win the Stanley Cup. We might as well talk about that,” Ruff said. “And I don’t think we’re that far away.”
With Miller, anything seems possible in leading to Buffalo’s season opener at Ottawa on Friday.
He’s coming off a season in which he won 41 games to set the franchise single-season record, and finished second in the NHL in both goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (92.9) to win the Vezina. Add to that the international acclaim Miller drew in Vancouver in February, when he was named the MVP of the Olympic Winter Games hockey tournament. The Americans lost to Canada in the final.
“Ryan gets a lot of recognition, and deservedly so. I think he’s the key piece to this team,” forward Thomas Vanek said. “Obviously, any talk of the Stanley Cup, goaltending is what you need, and we have that.”
The question for the Sabres is if they have enough everywhere else.
As impressive as they were in winning the Northeast Division title to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years last season, there are lingering concerns about a team that collapsed in the first round when it was eliminated in six games by Boston.
Injuries and a lack of punch in an undersized lineup proved contributing factors in how the Bruins were able to push the Sabres around.
Though Tyler Myers, coming off his rookie of the year campaign, is the new star on defence, the unit is in transition after Buffalo lost stalwarts Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman in free agency. They’ve been replaced by the additions of Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn.
Up front, the Sabres mostly stood pat in sticking with their main core of forwards who have proven they can be both prolific and yet inconsistent.
No need to remind Vanek how disappointing last season was. A series of injuries led to the three-time 30 goal-scorer’s finish of just 28—the fewest since his rookie year in 2005-06.
“It stinks,” Vanek said. “It doesn’t matter, injured, healthy, we have to be better as a group. And we weren’t good enough.”
What doesn’t bother Vanek is how Ruff has set the win-or-bust tone.
“I’m happy Lindy came out and said it. That should be our goal,” Vanek said. “Now we just need to show up and actually do it and not just always talk about it like we have in the past.”
The Sabres have been close before as recently as 2006 and ’07, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals only to lose to Carolina and Ottawa, respectively.
But that was a different team, one headed by co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. It’s no coincidence that the Sabres sudden decline immediately followed the summer of 2007, when they lost both Drury and Briere in free agency.
The Sabres are counting on the off-season addition of 17-year NHL veteran Rob Niedermayer to provide both off and on-ice leadership to a respected group that already features captain Craig Rivet and forward Mike Grier.
“We feel like we have a really strong team,” Rivet said. “From our first line to our fourth line, six real solid defencemen, and the best goaltender in the world right now: I think we’re pretty confident in what we have.”