They celebrated the victory as hockey teams always do, with players spilling over the bench and making their way to the goaltender to acknowledge his part in the win. Ah, but this time it was a sight worth watching. You might even say the beeline the Buffalo Sabres made toward Ryan Miller represented the best skating they had done since the start of the third period of their 4-3 series-clinching win over the New York Islanders, a stanza akin to a plane ride through heavy turbulence.
Air bag, anyone?
What if Miller doesn't make The Save? We're talking overtime for sure. Maybe a return trip to Nassau Coliseum. Perhaps a Game Seven back in HSBC Arena. And no telling what might happen if it ever came to that.
"That's the game-breaker right there," said defenseman Teppo Numminen. "Everybody knew that was their chance and it looked like they were going to score."
"It got to the point where we were holding on and did not want this to be the turning point of the series," Miller said calmly, leisurely, as if he might pull out his guitar and strum a country ballad.
The Islanders were 6 feet away from the tying goal with 12 seconds remaining and the net yawning at old friend Miroslav Satan. He'd befuddled Miller with a power move across the top of the crease, cutting from right post to left, creating the opening the relentless Isles had desperately sought. The alleyway to overtime beckoned, and then it was gone, as Miller lunged backward with his glove palm-upward and denied his former teammate the equalizer.
"I'll have to see it on the video," Satan said. "I don't even know what happened. It was so quick. I tried to come across and put it in around him but I don't even know what happened there."
But the open net. Surely he saw the open net.
"I saw he was on the short side and I dragged it along the side of the net so I knew that there should be some opening there for the puck and I just tried to slide it in," Satan said. "I don't know how he saved it but it must have been something like a rollover or something because there's usually no way the goalie can get there so quickly. It was the save of the series, probably."
The puck squirted behind the net and was retrieved by Alexei Yashin. He chipped it back at Miller, called a bank shot, corner pocket, only to have his effort stop just outside on the goal line, where the puck was buried by Miller and his mates.
The outcome had been wrapped in a tidy little package when Maxim Afinogenov (welcome back, Max) scored off a feed from Thomas Vanek for a 4-1 Buffalo lead with 13:22 left in the third period or, more appropriate to the moment, regulation. Before Satan scored early in the third, Miller hadn't allowed a goal in more than four periods, stopping 29 consecutive shots. That New York would score twice more seemed inconceivable. That Satan would have overtime at the end of his stick in the waning seconds would have been dismissed as preposterous. Instinct guided Miller through the moment.
"I actually thought if he cut to the middle he would get cut off more so I kind of . . . pushed him wide and I didn't get as big a piece of him as I thought and I kind of panicked," Miller said. "Luckily I got a hold of it."
When the horn sounded the Sabres swarmed their goaltender, counted him among their blessings on a night when they needed 30 saves to close the deal.
"He played solid all night, solid all series," Toni Lydman said. "We made some mistakes tonight. I think the reason we won was Ryan."e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org