By Dan Berlin
It’s like déjà vu all over again for the Buffalo Sabres.
Following in their footsteps from a year ago, the Sabres have managed to resurrect themselves in the second half, culminating in a late-season surge that finds the former bottom feeders knocking on the playoff door in the East once again.
And they have Ryan Miller to thank.
Miller is Buffalo’s most important player; when he’s rolling, so too are the Sabres. And he’s been on some kind of roll since the end of January. Following a subpar first half to the season, Miller, now 31, has regained his “All-World” form since the All-Star break, posting a 15-3-5 record in his 23 starts over that two-month span.
On Wednesday night, the former Olympics MVP and Vezina trophy winner provided his latest heroics with a 34-save effort in an important 3-0 win at home over Montreal, good for his sixth shutout of the year, a new career-high. Five of those have come since Feb. 1.
It took awhile, but Miller has successfully shaken off the effects of the cheap shot from Boston’s Milan Lucic back in November to re-establish himself as one of the game’s elite goaltenders. The direct result for the Sabres, who sat in 14th place in the East as recently as Feb. 17, is they now find themselves in the hunt for one of the two final playoff spots in the conference with less than 10 games to go.
Ironically, Buffalo followed the same blueprint for success last season. In 2010-11, the Sabres went on a 16-4-4 run to close out the year, propelling them to a seventh place finish in the East, before bowing out to the Flyers in seven games in the first round. The current edition of the Sabres are 16-5-5 over their last 26 games, and seemed destined once again to qualify for a run for Lord Stanley’s Cup come April, if Miller can stay hot.
Miller’s stellar play has undeniably had a contagious effect on his teammates too. He’s helped Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff find their games, after the two high-profile defencemen struggled mightily in front of Miller for much of the campaign. Myers’ play in his own zone has greatly improved – he’s a plus-12 over his past 14 games – while Ehrhoff, one of the team’s big free agent signings in the offseason, is finally settling in and starting to live up to some of the hype. While Jason Pominville continues his superb season as the leader of the Sabres’ offence, forwards Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford have even managed to shake off their early-season doldrums of late to salvage their respective seasons and boost Buffalo’s scoring.
Even Cody Hodgson, who was blanked on the scoresheet for 10 games after being acquired at the trade deadline, chipped in with his first two goals as a Sabre Wednesday night.
The Sabres are a confident bunch right now. But it’s thanks in no small part to the solid goaltending provided by Ryan Miller over the past two months. Great goaltenders, like Miller, have a way of making everyone around them better. They allow their teams to play with the lead, and take the pressure directly off of guys who may otherwise try to do too much. No deflating goals against, no setbacks, no momentum killers. Miller’s consistency between the pipes has given Head Coach Lindy Ruff the opportunity to build his team step-by-step, game-by-game into a winner and a force.
Miller, who on Feb. 4 won his 235th career game to pass Dominik Hasek as the all-time Sabres leader in wins, has arguably the broadest shoulders of any goaltender in the league. He’s carrying his team to the playoffs. And while Miller almost certainly won’t garner consideration for either the Vezina or Hart trophies this season, he should. There’s isn’t a goalie in the league who’s been better, or more important to his team, than Miller has over the course of the second half of the season.
With just eight games to go, Coach Ruff is counting on his stud goalie to get the Sabres into the playoffs. If history tells us anything, Miller will get them there.Photo Credit: Getty Images