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On the day he signed his first contract, Ryan Miller walked with his dad onto the floor of the Buffalo Sabres’ empty arena. It was August so the ice was gone, but Miller could surmise where the crease would be. He stood in the spot, looked around and dreamed of playing just one NHL game.

Miller will skate into the crease tonight and look around again. This time, 11 years later, the goaltender will savor his 500th game.

“Everything’s been more than I ever could have imagined,” Miller said Thursday. “I’m just continuing to enjoy the fact I get to play in the NHL.”

Miller’s milestone is expected to be the most significant part of the Sabres’ season finale against the New York Islanders. He’ll become the 62nd goalie to achieve the feat and only the 20th to play 500 for one team.

“Five hundred games with one team for a goaltender is a significant achievement,” Mike Liut, Miller’s agent and a member of the 500-game club, said via email from Russia. “The accomplishment will take on more significance in retirement as Ryan reflects on Buffalo and all it has meant to him, and he to the city.”

Miller and Buffalo have had unforgettable moments during their long relationship. It’s possible the union will reach its conclusion tonight. Miller has one year left on his contract, and it’s not clear whether the 32-year-old will be part of the Sabres’ rebuilding project – or whether he’d want to be. Miller’s Buffalo town house has listed for sale.

“There’s been a lot of ‘could be last game as a Sabre’ the last few years,” Miller said. “I’m just trying to enjoy the moment. It’s going to be my 500th game. I’m going to approach it the same way I’ve approached the other 499: Just put your pads on and try to do your best. See where it kind of goes, go out and have fun, try and make the saves and see where it all shakes out.”

All involved hope the game is more fun than Miller’s previous appearance in First Niagara Center. The fans taunted him toward the end of his brief stay, and he acknowledged them with a wave shortly before getting pulled during a 22-minute, four-goal outing.

Miller hopes last week’s animosity has faded. He has embraced Buffalo during the past decade while trying to establish a home and legacy.

“I’m not mad at the fans,” he said. “It’s heat of the moment. You get emotional.

“Some people were giving me some grief, and I just picked my hand up like, ‘OK, I hear ya.’ It wasn’t a, ‘Screw you.’ It wasn’t a, ‘I hate you guys.’ It was, ‘You know, I hear ya. Enough. I get it. Just let me try and do what I’ve got to do.’

“It’s been disappointing for everybody in this room, this organization,” he said of another season with no playoffs. “I don’t think anybody takes it harder than I do, so I don’t think anybody should be able to question me or say I’m mad at the fans or I don’t respect or enjoy the fans here. I’ve done more than my fair share to go out and prove that I’m part of this community and give back as much as I can. We don’t even talk about all the stuff I try and do to make this feel more like my second home.

“That’s where I’m going to leave it. I care about the people here. If they’re frustrated with the way we’re playing, I can acknowledge it and we can move on.”

The fans have every reason to acknowledge the milestone. It comes in Miller’s 10th season, and only eight goalies reached 500 games in less than a decade. In addition to joining the small group of netminders, Miller will become just the 28th player and first goalie to wear the Sabres’ uniform 500 times.

“As a goaltender goes, that’s a lot of games in a short period of time,” Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi said. “When you play so many games so often, you really have to have mental strength that is above the norm.”

Corsi says Miller, who averaged 66 games during the previous six seasons, manages the workload by thinking like a hockey player instead of a goalie.

“If you see a goaltender play hockey, his skill set can really blossom,” Corsi said. “If he’s trying to make saves, he’s doomed to stopping pucks. In his case, he’s playing hockey, and then he’ll stop pucks. That’s the difference.”

Liut, who played 347 games with St. Louis and 253 with Hartford, has watched a client who is “always looking to be better – better at playing the position, better at being a leader, better at supporting those around him.”

“As a person,” Liut wrote, “Ryan is an athlete who works at doing/saying the right things, while wearing his heart on his sleeve. You may not agree with his stance, but you know he’s sincere in his convictions and you must respect his approach.”

Miller has stood up to answer questions even more consistently than he’s stood up to shooters. He enters tonight with a record of 268-164-56, with a 2.59 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. When the puck drops, Miller will rank 19th among the 62 members of the 500 club in adjusted points percentage, a measure in which all ties, overtime losses and shootout decisions are counted as regulation ties to better compare goaltenders from different eras.

“It should be a good night for him,” said Sabres alternate captain Thomas Vanek, who has played alongside Miller since 2004. “To become his teammate and friend, I think that’s when you realize how special and how good he is.”

Sabres fans have been able to watch Miller since his debut against New Jersey on Nov. 19, 2002. The goalie will be in a crease again next season, but there’s no guarantee it will be the one in which he dreamed his NHL fantasy on that warm August day.

“I don’t know which way it’s going to go, so I’m not going to talk like I’m gone,” Miller said. “I think I’ve got a lot more hockey in me, so being able to just kind of reflect and enjoy a moment is nice, but it’s going to be another hockey game and I have to prepare and compete.

“I’m just trying to enjoy that part of it. That’s what I like to do. That’s what I know to do.”

The 500 club

There have been 61 goaltenders in NHL history to play at least 500 games, but only 19 have done it with the same team.

Martin Brodeur, NJ 1,220

Tony Esposito, Chi 873

Terry Sawchuk, Det 734

Olaf Kolzig, Was 711

Billy Smith, NYI 675

Mike Richter, NYR 666

Turk Broda, Tor 629

Glenn Hall, Chi 618

Gump Worsley, NYR 582

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calg 576

Chris Osgood, Det 565

Evgeni Nabokov, SJ 563

Jacques Plante, Mtl 556

Patrick Roy, Mtl 551

Ed Giacomin, NYR 538

Mike Vernon, Cal 526

Kirk McLean, Van 516

Henrik Lundqvist, NYR 509

Marty Turco, Dal 509

Ryan Miller, Buf 499

email: jvogl@buffnews.com