CHICAGO — The door to the St. Louis Blues’ dressing room deep within the United Center was opened to reporters early Sunday evening and there was stone silence inside. Off in the back corner sat Ryan Miller, not moving a muscle. Barely even blinking.
He looked straight ahead, paid no attention to teammates or equipment men moving near him or to the media crush that had entered. Miller’s sweater was off but he still had bulky leg pads on. It seemed like he was in disbelief he actually had to take them off for the final time this season.
When Miller left Buffalo en route for St. Louis on Feb. 28, it seemed like he was the final piece to a Stanley Cup puzzle. Instead, the so-called “St. Louis Sabres” are toast and some weak work by Miller was a big factor.
Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks — in a game that was 1-1 through 40 minutes — was an absolute meltdown. An implosion. A colossal disappointment for a team that hit April thinking it might win the Presidents’ Trophy and then somehow lost 10 of its last 12 games.
After composing himself for a few minutes, Miller stood in the middle of the room to face reporters and was asked his reaction. He needed a few seconds more to collect himself before he could speak.
“I’m just really disappointed the game didn’t turn in our direction,” Miller said. “Being 1-1 going into the third is a pretty good situation for us and we didn’t get it done.”
Chicago’s four-goal outburst started with Jonathan Toews’ power-play goal after 44 seconds and continued at 2:01 thanks to an all-time gaffe by Miller.
With Hawks winger Patrick Sharp trying to get loose on a breakaway and getting high-sticked by Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Miller went too late for the poke check. Sharp chipped the puck gently underneath Miller and the red-clad crowd erupted as it slid into the net.
It was 3-1 and that was pretty much that.
“I was in the right spot,” Miller said. “And that last tug he kind of chipped it in between me. So, yeah. It was just too bad.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said he wasn’t going to indict Miller on the play, and then he pretty much did.
“The third goal really took the wind out of our sails,” Hitchcock said. “You could see a big sag on the team after that. The third goal was a backbreaker.
“The bench was still fine. Our team had great spirit at the start, great spirit for the first and second period. We played as well as we’ve ever played in this building the way we played the first two periods. The third goal. ‘Whoosh.’ The air went right out of our bench.”
Andrew Shaw tipped in a Duncan Keith shot at 7:30 to make it 4-1 and Keith scored the coup de grace at 17:05 on a 2-on-1 break. The Hawks scored four times on 16 shots in the third period and five times on 27 shots overall.
So this makes seven years and counting since Miller has won a single playoff series. And even that one, the Sabres’ 2007 second-rounder over the Rangers, was essentially rescued by the miraculous Chris Drury-Maxim Afinogenov finish in Game Five.
It’s now four straight series losses for Miller, who posted a 2.70 goals-against average and sickly .897 save percentage in the six games as Chicago rallied to win the last four. Meanwhile, Hawks goalie Corey Crawford posted numbers of 1.98 and .935.
Crawford was the difference in the game as St. Louis outshot Chicago, 28-11, in the first two periods and 17-3 in the second period but went 0 for 6 on the power play.
“I don’t know,” Miller said when asked about his performance. “I’ll have to sit down and think about that. Not good enough I guess.”
In Miller’s defense, Hitchcock was quick and correct to lay heavy blame at the feet of his team’s offense. The Blues needed another scorer to make a real run as they scored just 14 goals in the six games and were a pathetic 2 for 29 on the power play.
It seems like they should have been beating down the Sabres’ door for Matt Moulson, not for Steve Ott and maybe not even for Miller. Blues fans will probably wonder how they would have done at the end of this season and in the playoffs had they simply stood pat with Jaroslav Halak.
Where does it all leave the Sabres as far as draft-pick return? Well, that automatic 2014 first-rounder for a berth in the Western Conference final is now gone. St. Louis would still have to turn over the pick to Buffalo if it re-signs Miller or trades him prior to making its own pick but those two scenarios figure to be unlikely.
The Sabres got Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier and flipped Halak for Michal Neuvirth. They’ll get the Blues’ No. 1 pick next year and either a second- or third-rounder in 2016. Still pretty good.
As for Miller, his .903 save percentage in the regular season and his play in the postseason should give the Blues — and everyone else in free agency — major jitters about handing over long-term dollars to a 34-year-old. Especially when you consider that top prospect Jake Allen is ready to graduate from the AHL.
Miller’s market will be an interesting one and it seems like he cost himself millions the last few weeks. Why would any team go past 3-4 years on him now? And are his days of being a $6 million goalie over?
“I don’t know. I’ll just have to take these days as they come right now,” Miller said. “I guess I’m free to go to my sister-in-law’s wedding. That’s about it.
“We’re through with the hockey part now. We’ll have to see where we’re at. See how they feel about me. I definitely like St. Louis. I like the guys. I like the team. We’ll see what they feel about the playoffs.”
Then an ESPN.com reporter ran afoul of Miller by asking how serious any talks were with the Blues prior to the playoffs.
“Not very serious,” grumbled Miller. And that was that for the session, as Miller brushed aside the pack of reporters and ended the chat just 2½ minutes after it started.
Off Miller went to a restricted area of the dressing room. And to an offseason and an uncertain stage of his career that he’s never seen before.