There’s that old hockey adage about a goalie “stealing” a game for his team or maybe even an entire playoff series. But as we move into a regular season that is going to be just 48 games, at a time when the NHL is filled with stars in net all over the map, could a goalie steal an entire season for his team?
There’s plenty of big names that could. It’s plausible one of them is Ryan Miller.
Think of the goalies who dominated the stat sheet last year. Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) after a regular season in which he finished with a 1.95 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. St. Louis had a lights-out tandem in Brian Elliott (1.56/.940) and Jaroslav Halak (1.97/.926). Cory Schneider of Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers were both under 2.00 in goals-against average.
Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who will take over this year from Tim Thomas, were both under 2.10. And any talk of goaltending these days has to include the likes of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame bound Martin Brodeur, who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals.
“That’s a school of thought for a lot of teams with their main guy,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said when asked about the steal-a-season theory. “If that guy gets on a real good roll, it can push your team ahead of another team and gain you a little space [in the standings]. Ryan is more than capable of doing that. All those guys are capable of doing it. But part of getting on that roll is playing well in front of your goaltender, too.”
Miller’s overall numbers suffered badly last season in the wake of the Milan Lucic incident in Boston and the resulting concussion that dogged him for the better part of two months. Miller finished 23rd in the NHL in goals-against average (2.55) and 20th in save percentage (.916), and both figures were his worst in four years.
Miller is now 32 years old and he hasn’t played in a competitive game in more than nine months. It might be tough to ask him to carry a team at this point, even while the Sabres are still planning to play him in at least 36 of the 48 games.
“Everybody took a different approach to be best prepared for a shortened season,” said Miller, who spent the lockout working out in Southern California and at an NHL Players’ Association camp in Phoenix. “In my case, I didn’t see an opportunity at a high enough level to play. Insurance policies were awfully high. Plus it probably helps me coming off a season where I had a few incidents off the ice where I just let everything settle down.”
Miller is three years removed from the high point of his career, the 2009-10 campaign after which he won the Vezina Trophy and during which he starred for Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics. He set career-bests with a 2.22 GAA and a .929 save percentage — figures not approached neither before nor since.
But his reputation remains as one of the best goalies in the world even if the numbers didn’t back it up again until last February.
Miller has carried the Sabres for long stretches since becoming the regular goaltender in 2005. And one of them was last year, when a 14-2-3 burst put Buffalo in the thick of the playoff race.
Dogged by the concussion, Miller combined to go just 8-9-2 in December and January of last season, with a 3.06 GAA and .897 save percentage. But in February and March, with his health no longer in question after two concussions in less than a year, Miller’s numbers soared to 17-5-5, 2.02 and .935.
Imagine if Miller put together a similar run in a 48-game season.
“You see people’s stats over there in the West. You’re paying attention,” said new Sabres winger Steve Ott, who came from Dallas. “It’s no surprise what he did with Team USA, what he did with his Vezina and his whole career. He had strong streaks last year and he’s a first-class goalie in this league. We’re very lucky to have a top-end goalie like him.”
“You know goalies can get hot and we’ve seen Ryan have those stretches where he’s just about unbeatable,” said captain Jason Pominville. “Then you start talking about 20 games or so, even a little more, and if you have a run like that, it’s almost half the season this year. So great goalies are capable of that and certainly Ryan fits into those names.”
Miller doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that a goalie can win more than a few games on his own.
“You need some help,” Miller said. “You need the boys scoring some goals and I’ll try to keep them out. I guess it’s fair to say if you do have a really good stretch in these 48 games, it could be the difference maker. But we’re going to need that team game if we want to win a championship. We need to build that to get ourselves in good playoff position.”
When you study Miller’s career, the consistency in some of the numbers is mind-boggling.
• His goals-against average at home is 2.54 and his save percentage is .913. On the road: 2.60/.916.
• Prior to all-star or Olympic breaks, his numbers are 2.57/.914. After the breaks: 2.56/.915.
But there are other numbers that stand out as red flags:
• In his wins, Miller’s numbers are 1.88/.937. In the losses, 3.50/.886.
• His numbers in March are 2.82/.907 — coming after a career full of solid play in January (2.38/.922) and February (2.49/.918).
• And then there’s this: Miller’s career numbers against the Northeast Division are average (2.46/.920) and his numbers against the Atlantic (2.80/.902) are downright poor. There are no games against the West this year and Miller’s numbers against the Pacific (1.94/.935) really boost his overall profile.
The Sabres often run Miller into the ground (he’s averaged 66 games the last five years) and his March numbers show fatigue. While this year’s compressed schedule will be difficult, there won’t be the cumulative effect of 82 games or long runs of travel out west that can wear down a goalie.
Even though he last played more than nine months ago, the Sabres hope a healthy Miller comes back this season as he finished the last one in passing Dominik Hasek to become the Sabres’ all-time victory leader.
Miller posted a 19-6-5 record after the All-Star break, including a record of 15-4-3 over his last 22 games. He became just the sixth goalie in NHL history to get 30 or more wins in seven straight seasons and set a career high with six shutouts.
And the Sabres’ rush to try to sneak into the playoffs was largely based on Miller’s play in February and March.
“It’s going to be different. This whole thing has kind of been about sustaining yourself,” Miller said. “Everything about this year has been about a false start. You get your hopes up around November, you get your hopes up around December, the end of December. You tried to ramp up for each of those.
“For me, it was just about staying pretty level and skating 3-4 times a week at least. Hockey-wise, I’m in a pretty good spot. Mentally, I always kind of knew it would be a short sprint kind of situation.”
Net play crucial
The top goalies in 1994-95, the last 48-game season, were Sabres standout Dominik Hasek (2.11/.930), Detroit’s Chris Osgood (2.26/.917), Chicago’s Ed Belfour (2.28/.906) and Quebec’s Jocelyn Thibault (2.34/.917). Quebec and Detroit won their divisions and the Red Wings lost to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup final.
That’s not real different than any other season. Top teams have top play in the net. Teams that are strong in some areas but weak in goal usually go nowhere. Think Toronto. The Sabres, a team hoping its offense will come around, will have to rely on their goaltender. Again.
“If he plays Ryan Miller hockey like he always has, the rest of it will take care of things in front of him,” said Ott. “We’re all committed to helping him out. It’s a big team mind-set to add to team toughness with defense, forwards. He’s capaple of winning games himself and everyone knows that but we need to help him as much as we can.”
“It’s going to be an interesting situation,” Miller said of the tight schedule. “Focus on game to game, week to week. Break it down to 2-3 week segments and try to win those. I hope we’re focused on the balance of the game. We have to be good on offense, we have to be good on defense and our transition game either direction has got to be really good.”