TORONTO – Ryan Miller had no problem getting in shape physically during the lockout. His workouts in Los Angeles and Phoenix had his body ready for the season.
There was no way to test himself mentally, however. Empty practice rinks in warm-weather climates are a long way from back-to-back outings against NHL teams in sold-out arenas.
“I’m dragging a little bit out there,” Miller acknowledged Monday night after a 2-1 victory over Toronto, spoiling the Maple Leafs’ home opener.
He would have been even more drained had the Leafs extended the game to 65 minutes. They almost did.
After scoring with 1:42 left, the Leafs crashed the crease for the remainder of the game before Buffalo finally escaped with the victory in Air Canada Centre. They improved to 2-0 despite being outshot, 35-20.
“They were coming that whole third period, and we knew it,” Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “We held on. Millsie made some big saves. We stole one, got two points.”
Miller barely had the energy to celebrate.
“I worked pretty hard and could last about an hour and a half on the ice skating when we were locked out,” he said, “but holding that mental focus and being into every play where you can’t conserve energy, you have to be there and be with the play, yeah that’s a lot different.
“I just hope that starts to come back real soon because it’s going to be a grind.”
He gets a break today. The Sabres will take the day off before returning to practice Wednesday morning. They begin a home-and-home series with Carolina on Thursday in PNC Arena and host the Hurricanes on Friday.
For the first seven years of Miller’s career, few things were as certain as a win against Toronto. He continually tormented the Maple Leafs and their fans, going 22-8 in his opening 30 decisions.
That dominance evened out over the last two years. Miller was 2-3 against the Leafs in 2010-11 and 3-3 last season, with every loss coming in Toronto.
“I haven’t won here in a long time, so I made note of that,” Miller said.
The Leafs desperately attempted to extend his drought. They pulled goaltender Ben Scrivens and had a six-on-four advantage when Patrick Kaleta was called for roughing with 1:46 left.
Toronto won the draw back to defenseman Mike Kostka. He fanned on his chance, but Nazem Kadri buried it with 1:42 left.
The crowd of 19,475 exploded with 1:17 to go when the goal light flashed again. The referees immediately waved off Joffrey Lupul’s goal, and video review confirmed he punched the puck into the net.
“I was a little confused how it went in without a little help,” Miller said.
The Sabres delivered a body blow to the Leafs by opening the scoring. The goal came on a body blow to Cody Hodgson. Christian Ehrhoff fired a slap shot from the left point that was off the mark. Hodgson, standing in front, got plunked in the chest, and the puck caromed into the net with 8:51 gone.
A three-player parade to the penalty box for Buffalo gave Toronto a glorious chance to tie the game.
The referees nailed Drew Stafford (interference), Tyler Myers (delay of game) and Steve Ott (closing hand on the puck) within a span of 1:37, giving Toronto a two-minute five-on-three and total man-advantage time of 3:37.
Buffalo escaped with relative ease. Though Toronto managed eight shots during the extended opportunity, the only real chance came when defenseman Dion Phaneuf rang the iron with a slap shot.
“Everyone that was out there paid the price to be in the shooting lanes,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said.
The Maple Leafs built their shot advantage to 21-9 late in the second, but the Sabres made better use of their chances to open a 2-0 lead. Thomas Vanek hit a wide-open Pominville, and the captain converted the chance.
“They’re playing well in all three zones,” coach Lindy Ruff said of the Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville line. “The Thomas play to Pommer for the second goal was a great play.”