ST. PAUL, Minn. — When he went to the Team USA orientation camp in August, Ryan Miller was simply hoping to start the path that would get him back into contention for a spot in the Olympics. As it turns out, he’s done far more than that in the first half of the NHL season.
Through one of the worst seasons in Buffalo Sabres history, Miller has been as dependable as ever. At 33, he’s re-established his claim to being an elite goalie and likely the top American in the net.
In the wake of his solid season, the expected became official Wednesday night as Miller was selected for the United States team that will compete in February in Sochi, Russia.
Miller, the star of Team USA when it lost the gold-medal game in overtime to Canada in 2010 in Vancouver, will be joined in net by Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard. Western New York natives Patrick Kane of Chicago and Brooks Orpik of Pittsburgh were also chosen to the 25-man roster.
After his 2009-10 Vezina Trophy season that included a division championship and his fabulous Olympics, Miller has had three mostly pedestrian campaigns. Meanwhile, the Sabres have now sunk to the bottom of the NHL standings in rebuilding mode, leaving the 33-year-old Miller uncertain of his future as he heads toward the trade deadline and free agency.
But the potential off-ice distractions haven’t impacted his play at all.
“You can’t trust things always to really go quite like you plan. I’ve just tried to continue to do my job and have things take care of themselves,” Miller told The News Wednesday following the roster’s announcement. “The first checkpoint for me is done. Get on the team.
“I have to stick to my plan here, continue to play hockey and earn the spot. There’s a fair amount of hockey left before we take off for Sochi. You want to be at the level they want you to play at leading into the Games.”
Miller is expected to be in goal tonight in the XCel Energy Center when the Sabres meet the reeling Minnesota Wild – losers of six straight in regulation for the first time in their 13-season history. He did not play in the opener of this road trip, Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Miller is just 10-17-1 but has a .927 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average. The save percentage is remarkable considering the Sabres’ record and is just behind the .929 he posted in his Vezina Trophy season.
Miller really picked up his play in December, going 5-2-1 with a 1.82 GAA and .949 save percentage. He’s 5-1-1, 1.65 in his last seven games and was named the NHL’s Second Star of the Week on Monday.
“My focus has been to continue to show I belong in the NHL, show I belong back in the Olympics and give myself an opportunity and a chance to get back to where we were the last time,” Miller said. “And my hope would be to finish the job.”
Miller’s NHL honor came in the wake of one of the best games of his career. In Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals, Miller stopped 49 of 50 shots through regulation and overtime and then went 6 for 6 in the shootout.
“I’m trying not to be unnecessarily aggressive. That’s not my game,” he said. “I’m trusting myself a little bit more and I’m actually finding I keep making saves I need to make without being two or three feet out of the net at all times.
“When I was younger, there was a lot of high athletic ability and I butterflied quite a bit. I think over the last two years especially, I’ve gotten a lot better with my hands, my stance and in my ability to play around the posts. Those have been focuses for sure.
Quick is 10-5-0, 2.35 and .905 and has not played since suffering a groin strain during the Kings’ shootout loss to the Sabres in First Niagara Center on Nov. 12. He may go on a conditioning assignment to Manchester of the AHL in the next few days.
Howard, who took a shootout loss in Wednesday’s Winter Classic against Toronto in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a relatively controversial pick based on his poor stats (6-9-8, 2.72 and .907). He’s widely expected to be the No. 3 goalie and thus not play much if at all in Sochi.
Howard was somehow chosen over Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop - who is 20-5-3 with a 1.89 GAA and .935 save percentage.
Miller made 12 saves off Caps star Alex Ovechkin in Sunday and could play Ovechkin twice more before Team USA and Russia meet Sochi on Feb. 15. The Sabres also meet Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Jan. 26 in Consol Energy Center.
“If people want to hype those games, I have to approach them as another hockey game because that’s how you have to feel at the Olympics,” Miller said. “You can’t play differently. You play the way you know how and hope that’s good enough.”