BOSTON – Until Tuesday night, Ryan Miller was off to an excellent start in the Buffalo net. He seemed to be picking up where he left off from his stellar play last March that nearly single-handedly carried the Sabres into the playoffs.
Then came the overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Miller hadn’t given up a remotely questionable goal in his four previous starts but gave up three in that game, including Matt Frattin’s winner with 1.5 seconds left in OT.
Afterward, a stone-faced Miller sat in front of his locker — pads still on — pondering what happened. When he talked to reporters, he took full responsibility and said he needed to be better and expected to be better.
The Sabres are 0-3-1 in their last four games and haven’t been able to shake their doldrums after a 2-0 start. Miller needs to make sure one bad game doesn’t turn into two or more and what a doozy of a chance he has Thursday night.
The Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins (5-0-1). In TD Garden, where they are 4-0. In what’s expected to be Miller’s first start there in nearly 14½ months, since the infamous Milan Lucic bull rush over him on Nov. 12, 2011.
“You just have to try to remember how last year felt and compete again,” Miller said. “[Tuesday] I just didn’t have it, for whatever reason. It was definitely the kind of game I needed to show up for and be better. The guys got me back into it. I tried to hang tight with it and then I had another letdown. Just let them down.”
The Sabres were off Wednesday, a fact that sounds odd with the team struggling.
Coming off an overtime loss in which the defense struggled in its own end, the power play once again showed it could use plenty of fine-tuning and 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko often played to his age, there’s no way coach Lindy Ruff would have given his players the day off.
But Ruff has to be more judicious with his practice time in the shortened season and there are now black-and-white rules about days off the players get, both at home and on the road, in the new collective bargaining agreement.
So the Sabres took Wednesday off and return to the ice for their morning skate Thursday at 11:30. They have a practice scheduled for Friday morning at 11 a.m. in the Bell Centre in Montreal but that one doesn’t figure to be a heavy lift either because it comes in the wake of a game and late-night flight, and in advance of a matchup with the Canadiens on Saturday afternoon at 2.
Miller has faced the Bruins since the Lucic incident, going 2-0 against them last February in First Niagara Center and stopping 71 of 72 shots. But Jhonas Enroth played the other two games in Boston last year.
While a renewal of hostilities with Lucic — John Scott, anyone? — might be on the minds of Sabres fans, don’t think Miller doesn’t have even more ammunition against the Bruins now, too. Remember, he reportedly had a heated exchange with Boston owner and Board of Governors Chairman Jeremy Jacobs during negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA last month in New York.
Miller downplayed the exchange when he returned to Buffalo for practice after the lockout ended, but the story of the dispute — and Jacobs’ near-walkout on the talks — got wide play across North America.
Through three games, Miller was fifth in the NHL in save percentage (.952) and sixth in GAA (1.67) while stopping 100 of the first 105 shots he faced. He’s now dropped to 2.38 and .925 but still entered Wednesday 10th and seventh in the league, respectively, in those categories among goalies who have started more than one game.
In his first four games, the goals against him were all deflections and screens, or unstoppable howitzers on power plays from stars Claude Giroux of Philadelphia and Alex Ovechkin of Washington. That changed Tuesday.
Toronto’s first goal, a rebound tap-in by Jay McClement, came after Miller simply whiffed on Nazem Kadri’s 30-foot floater and the puck clanked off the goalpost.
“Just missed it,” Miller said. “Stupid.”
Cody Franson’s second-period snap shot from the point beat Miller over the glove and it looked like there were no screen issues on the play. Then came the overtime winner, where Frattin beat Jordan Leopold and chipped the puck under Miller’s arm with Miller on his knees instead of simply standing firm and taking the shot as time expired.
Miller had bounced back in the third period with a couple of strong saves and looked sharper in the net than he had over the opening 40 minutes. But the overtime faux pas wiped away any good feelings.
“I was trying to feel better,” he said. “The first two periods weren’t very good. … Just have to regroup and get it together.”
Winger Patrick Kaleta was released Wednesday from Buffalo General Hospital after being held for observation overnight but did not travel here for Thursday’s game.
Ruff said Kaleta was being checked for neck problems after taking a hit from behind from Toronto’s Mike Brown in the second period. Kaleta, who has a history of neck issues, left the ice groggily after the hit and was sent to the hospital. Nathan Gerbe, a scratch Tuesday, is likely to take Kaleta’s spot in the lineup.