FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Ryan Miller, likely more than anyone on the Sabres, understands what a championship would mean for Buffalo. He’s been in the organization for 11 years, and he’s talked often about leaving behind a winning legacy.
With the Sabres near the bottom of the NHL and longtime coach Lindy Ruff sitting home unemployed, Miller’s plan to be part of an established winner has taken a significant detour.
“We’re almost starting from scratch here,” said the goaltender, whose team visits the Florida Panthers tonight. “I’ve been pretty fortunate, pretty blessed in my career to be on good teams and be on teams that have good confidence. I still think I’m on a good team. We didn’t have the confidence, and I don’t think we were playing the smartest hockey we could play. We’re going to keep working on the habits.
“It’s unfortunate Lindy can’t be here with us, but it gives us a chance to reset and look at it from a different perspective. We are finding a lot of habits where Lindy was talking about them, but it wasn’t coming around.
“It’s not a knock on Lindy. It’s not a knock on these boys. You start from scratch and build the game you want to play. We’re hoping that it makes a difference this season, for sure, but I think it will serve the organization much, much better to get the game where we want to have it. Our hope, obviously, is win, win, win as much as we can, but it’s going to be about the process more than anything.”
The Sabres finally experienced a victory Tuesday in Tampa Bay, and they’ll go for a second straight in BB&T Center against the struggling Panthers. Even if Buffalo (7-12-1) rolls to six in a row, though, that merely gets the club near .500.
So, as Miller said, this season has become more about building toward that championship dream he has been holding since 2002-03.
“I’m just trying to smile, enjoy the moments when you can win some hockey games and carry that kind of stuff over,” the 32-year-old said. “That’s what’s going to see us through here and give us a chance this season. It’s not going to be about getting up or down. Just be happy we won, keep getting better and improving.
“I think the position we put ourselves in, every night can be better, and that should be our goal.”
Miller has urged his teammates to improve in several ways this season. Despite pedestrian numbers in several categories, he’s been the team’s steadiest player since the puck dropped. He’s also been fiery in the dressing room, using expletives to try to get players to realize that complacency is unacceptable.
“I felt like last year I put myself through way too much in my own head, and this year I’m just going to do my job and lead where I can,” Miller said. “I did snap a few times already, but that’s all a little bit of theatrics.”
The outbursts may have helped the sliding team gain traction.
“It’s not that they weren’t trying to win before, but I think you can see they’re hungry and they’re ready to learn a little bit,” Miller said. “I think everybody respects where we’re at. We did it to ourselves. We dug a hole.
“I just don’t want to see the boys wallowing anymore and feeling sorry for themselves. I know that our crowd and our fans are proud and they want to see us play good hockey. But what we have to worry about is digging back out, not making that hole deeper and feeling sorry for ourselves and getting caught up in the tough emotional part of this. You’ve got to suck it up and be professional.”
It’s the second straight season littered with disappointment for Miller and the Sabres, but the goalie says the struggles last year were worse.
“This has been tough, but it is just a moment in time,” he said. “We can do something about it. Looking back at last year, it was probably the lowest point I’ve had in my career, just going through that month-and-a-half, two-month stretch with nothing going my way, nothing going right.”
Miller and the Sabres hope this trip to Florida finally gets things rolling their way.
“The guys in that room have a lot of pride,” interim coach Ron Rolston said. “There’s a lot of pride in this organization. Now it’s them banding together and us moving forward.”