|Goalie Miller carrying a heavy load in Sabres' push to make playoffs|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 22 March 2008 06:27|
``It was fun,'' the Buffalo Sabres goalie said, fully aware his definition of fun these days differs from the norm. ``This is the first extended break I've had in a long, long time. You get it where you can.''
For Miller, this was what he called a chance to ``check out'' on a rare day off - no practice, game or media commitment - during a grueling season in which he's had to check in for a career-high 70 games and counting, three short of setting the Sabres' single-season record for appearances by a goalie.
It's a heavy workload for any goalie, never mind a player in only his fourth full NHL season. And it's one that Miller has accepted in his quest to join the league's elite.
It was one thing to play a contributing role on a talent-laden and offensively potent Sabres team that gained the Eastern Conference finals the previous two seasons. Miller is keenly aware of the bigger test of putting this young Sabres squad - minus Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and now Brian Campbell - on his shoulders and carrying it to the postseason.
``It's a learning curve for sure, and I feel if I can handle the amount of games, and the pressure that comes with playing in this town and being a contender, then that would be a step forward in my career,'' Miller said, acknowledging he's experienced mental fatigue. ``It's the most taxing thing I've done short of the playoffs.''
The job is not yet done. With seven games left, Buffalo sits two points behind Boston for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
Miller has done his part in a season in which he's not taken more than one game off at a time and is currently on a 28-game appearance streak, with his last game off coming Jan. 21. Adding to his workload is the Sabres' tough schedule. Prior to last weekend's three-day break, they had played 25 games in 47 days.
Through it all, Miller's numbers have been consistent.
His 2.60 goals-against average this season is 10 points lower than his career average, and his three shutouts nearly doubled his career total to seven. The only knock against Miller is his performance in shootouts.
After going 10-4 in shootouts and allowing nine goals on 46 attempts last season, Miller has gone 2-7 this year, allowing 12 goals on 24 shots. The Sabres offense, though, has let him down, having only scored on seven of 24 shootout attempts in games Miller has played.
It wasn't coach Lindy Ruff's intention to work Miller so hard when the season began, but he's been forced to lean heavily on his starter after the Sabres dropped as low as 13th place in late January.
``He's been resilient,'' Ruff said.
Ruff's concern is not the physical toll, but the mental stress that comes with Miller having to be consistently on top of his game.
``I think the step for Ryan, the step he has to make to become one of the elite, is handling this daily load,'' Ruff said, prior to Buffalo's 4-1 loss to Toronto on Friday. ``This is another type of pressure. We're in an eight-game playoff series where you probably need your goalie to be your best player.''
Defenseman Henrik Tallinder is impressed by how Miller has responded.
``Mentally, it's tough for him to play all these games, and I think he's done a great job of it,'' Tallinder said. ``If you look at last year's team and the team here before that, we had a lot more scoring, and a lot more depth than we have this year. So he's had to step up, and that's what he's done.''
Should Miller appear in each of Buffalo's final seven games, he'll finish with 77 appearances, which would put him in a tie for third on the NHL's single-season list, and two short of the record set by Grant Fuhr in 1995-96 with St. Louis.
There have been times when Miller has had difficulty coping with his workload.
He reacted angrily last week when pressed on his poor shootout record. And yet Miller has also shown boyish enthusiasm, eagerly showing off his bruised nose and broken cage, the result of being struck by a shot from Nashville's Marek Zidlicky last month.
Miller was knocked woozy by the shot and missed eight minutes, but returned to secure an 8-4 victory.
Miller doesn't regret occasionally wearing his temperament on his sleeve.
``As a goalie, your tendency is to put the team on your shoulders when you can. And I'm the kind of person - I'm not cocky, but I can't brush things off - that takes a lot of things to heart,'' Miller said. ``I think I've grown up a lot to where I can control it. I can't harness it like I want to, but it's getting there.''
For Miller, setting Buffalo's games-played record would mean nothing if it didn't come with a prize.
``I hope it comes with a playoff berth,'' Miller said. ``Because it's kind of a dubious honor otherwise.''