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Ryan Miller put himself through every mental exercise imaginable during the lockout with the idea he could maintain his competitive edge. Clarity between the ears translates to efficiency between the pipes. The battle against the inner demons has always been the greatest challenge for the franchise goaltender.

Miller did everything he could during the extended offseason to make sure he was sharp, but working out in rinks in Southern California, he couldn't simulate the speed of NHL players and the all-out assault he would face. He could only envision so many scenarios and watch only so many videotapes.

“There's nothing like having 18,000 people with expectations and your team with expectations,” Miller said. “That tests your ability to focus right there. It's coming back a little bit. I'm doing what I want to do on the ice and getting to positions I want to get to. Hopefully, it translates to more points for our team.”

If there's anything good about the Sabres' atrocious team defense this season, it's that Miller has been forced to take an accelerated course in goaltending. He's had more work in the last three games than he had in the previous three months, but there's only so much one man can tolerate.

Miller was terrific Sunday night in a 3-1 loss to the Bruins. He stopped 36 shots, giving him 77 saves with four goals against in the last two games alone. One game past the quarter pole in a short season, Miller is showing signs he's capable of carrying his team. That should be construed as good news for the Sabres.

OK, but where are they going?

Remember that 1-6-1 stretch? It could easily be 1-9-1 by now. The Sabres were grossly outplayed in their last two victories. Boston had more scoring chances in three periods than Buffalo had in the last three games, but Buffalo was one shot away from tying the game before Boston found an empty net in the final minute.

The Sabres are in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 11 points in 13 games. The eighth-place team will need 53 or 54 points, projecting results from last year to a 48-game season. It means the Sabres, who are 5-7-1, will need to finish the season with the equivalent of a 19-12-4 record to have a chance.

It starts with cleaning up their defense. In the last two games, the Islanders and Bruins have attempted 152 shots on goal and hit the net on 79 of them. Miller kept them in the game Sunday. The Bruins must have been shaking their heads with a 2-1 lead late in a game that felt like they were winning by a half-dozen.

At his best, Miller is one of the best goalies in the league. The chore for him in recent years has been sustaining his maximum ability for lengthy stretches. He would show flashes of brilliance that became common during the magical 2009-10 season but too often they were followed by spotty performances.

It must have been comforting for the Sabres, especially with the Bruins dominating the early part of the second period, to know that Miller was right again. He had the save of the season about 6 minutes into the second when he thrust his stick across an open net and stopped Nathan Horton in a how-did-he-do-that moment.

The one goal he allowed came on a perfect shot from the stick of pest Brad Marchand, whose wrister sifted through legs and sticks and landed just inside the post. He had no chance on the other goal he allowed when Patrice Bergeron snapped home a wrist shot on the power play in the third period. Miller gave his team a chance.

Isn't that what they ask?

The best teams in the NHL can win with average goaltending on a given night. Good ones need good goaltending most of the time. For the most part, teams near the bottom need spectacular goaltending to win. And that describes the Sabres through 13 games. If their netminder isn't exceptional, they're all but toast.

Miller was superb Sunday. It still wasn't enough.



email: bgleason@buffnews.com