BUFFALO, N.Y. – Once Ryan Miller finally got home to Buffalo early Wednesday, he tossed his Olympic silver medal “somewhere” on his dresser. And when he got to the rink for practice, the goalie was thinking about playoffs, not a podium.
The surroundings were familiar and so was Miller’s routine. He stepped on the ice, skated to his customary place on the Sabres logo at centre and launched his usual stretching regimen.
Fun time is over for Miller. As enjoyable as it was becoming an Olympic star at the Vancouver Games, Miller’s back to his regular job with the Sabres and focused on securing a playoff berth during the regular season’s final six weeks.
“There’s no time to really sit and reflect. Certainly, I am happy with my performance,” Miller said. “I guess it’s sinking in a little bit. But you come back, and you’ve got to get to work.”
Though Miller was intent on resuming his routine, the definition of normal for him might have changed. Miller played a leading role in the U.S.’ better-than-expected silver-medal performance, a run that ended with a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the gold medal game Sunday.
Between interviews with Ryan Seacrest and being shown on NBC celebrating at the closing ceremonies, Miller – his unshaven beard, gangly body and shrug-of-the-shoulders demeanour – was selected the tournament MVP by posting a 5-1 record while allowing only eight goals.
“Heh, heh, I don’t know how it’s changed too much. I’ve been playing goalie for a while now,” Miller said, regarding his growing public persona. “It’s just more people are aware of things, I guess. That’s kind of what the Olympics brings out: More people are paying attention.”
The attention people are paying Miller was evident before Buffalo’s game at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, when Miller was introduced as the backup and received a standing ovation from the packed house of Penguins fans.
“You don’t always step into a visiting rink expecting something positive,” Miller said. “It was a little surreal.”
It was much of the same on Wednesday night, when Buffalo hosted the Washington Capitals. Making his first start since the Olympics, Miller received a 45-second standing ovation as he was the last of seven local Vancouver Games’ medallists honoured by the Sabres.
Several fans brought U.S. flags and many more chanted “USA! USA!” as Miller acknowledged the cheers with several waves from the goal crease.
Miller-mania was already apparent during the pre-game practice, which is open to the public. A larger than usual crowd of about 100 were on hand to catch a glimpse of Miller.
“He took a country by storm and proved what he could do,” said Matt Bradley, who got a seat directly behind the Sabres bench.
In Buffalo, Miller is regarded as the key to the Sabres’ chances of making a deep playoff run this season. Already mentioned as a Vezina Trophy candidate, Miller ranks second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.16) and save percentage (93).
With a 30-15-7 record, Miller has accounted for all but three of Buffalo’s victories this season. The Sabres (33-20-9) are fifth in the Eastern Conference, but have been slumping, going 1-6-2 in their past nine games following a 3-1 loss to Washington.
Miller picked up where he left off in Vancouver by making 37 saves against the Capitals, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
In a bid to shake up the team and bolster its offence, general manager Darcy Regier made two trades before the NHL trading deadline on Wednesday. In the more significant deal, Buffalo acquired forward Raffi Torres from Columbus in exchange for a second-round draft pick and sparingly used defenceman Nathan Paetsch.
With 19 goals this season, Torres immediately becomes Buffalo’s leading scorer. An eight-year NHL veteran who also played with Edmonton and the Islanders, he has 177 points (98 goals, 79 assists) in 418 career games.
The Sabres also dealt forward Clarke MacArthur to Atlanta in exchange for third-and fourth-round draft picks.
Trades aside, Regier discussed how key Miller is to Buffalo.
“He’s certainly the backbone,” he said.
Coach Lindy Ruff, who was a Team Canada assistant, became an even bigger fan of Miller after his performance at Vancouver.
“The Olympics, when you tear it all down, it’s about great performances,” Ruff said. “You have to put up great performance after great performance, and I thought Ryan just kept doing it and gave that team a chance to be on the podium.”