by John Wawrow | Associated Press
When the playoffs began, Ryan Miller happily recalled how he had won The Basement Cup, The Driveway Cup, The Kitchen Cup – every type of Cup he could imagine while growing up in a hockey family in East Lansing, Mich.
Now that the rookie goalie has Buffalo halfway to winning the Stanley Cup, Miller realizes this experience feels a whole lot better.
"The Driveway Cup and Kitchen Cup, you seldom lose those," Miller said after practice Tuesday. "But this is really fun. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve been part of."
It might get a lot cooler for Miller when the Sabres open the Eastern Conference final against second-seeded Carolina on Saturday in Raleigh.
"I don’t think it changes too much," Miller said, referring to the increased pressure on him. "Just go out and play and have some fun."
Miller has been making it fun for a team few expected much from when the regular season began. Sixty wins later, including the regular season, Buffalo is in the final four after eliminating Philadelphia in six games and top-seeded Ottawa in five.
For a no-name group that prides itself on being a collection of equals, the Sabres make an exception in crediting Miller as the key in getting them this far.
"He’s been awesome all year," defenseman Toni Lydman said. "If you can trust your goalie, that’s a huge, huge factor in the game and in your confidence especially. He’s been solid."
"It starts with him," co-captain Daniel Briere added.
Miller’s 2.25 goals-against average is the second-lowest among goalies with 10 or more appearances this postseason. He’s 8-3 overall and 4-0 in overtime games. He allowed three or more goals only three times and is 4-1 in games in which he’s faced 30 or more shots.
Just as significant, Miller has showed no signs of unraveling after a bad game or cheap goal.
After allowing six goals on 33 shots in a 7-6 overtime win over the Senators in their series opener, Miller finished by giving up seven goals on the final 136 shots he faced.
Then there was R.J. Umberger‘s goal – a 35-foot snap shot that sneaked in under Miller’s right arm – in a 5-4 first-round loss, which allowed the Flyers to tie their series 2-2. Miller then gave up one goal in winning the next two games.
"Ultimately, it was one goal and I wasn’t going to let that define what I was doing," Miller said, referring to Umberger. "And in that situation, you have to bounce back, you have to continue to play."
Miller has so far defined his pro career as one in which he has showed an ability to bounce back. That’s something he had to learn after a successful three-year career at Michigan State, where he was selected college hockey’s top player in 2001 and set an NCAA record with 26 career shutouts.
The transition to the NHL wasn’t easy for Buffalo’s fifth-round pick, who gave up his senior year at college to sign with the Sabres in 2002.
Miller struggled in 2002-03, going 23-18-5 while playing for Rochester of the American Hockey League, and he was 6-8-1 in 15 games with the Sabres. The low point came the following season when he went 0-3 with Buffalo, including a 7-2 loss to Detroit, which left Miller in near tears afterward.
Miller devoted the NHL lockout to improving his game in the AHL last season, when he went 41-17-4 with Rochester, becoming the first AHL player to win 40 games since former Boston Bruins star Gerry Cheevers won a league-record 48 in 1964-65.
Miller followed by winning the Sabres’ starting job at the start of this season and going 30-14-0, despite missing November and part of December with a broken thumb.
The only remaining question was how he’d perform in his NHL playoff debut.
"There always are questions. But I wasn’t too worried about it," Miller said. "I had been through enough in my career where I’ve been training for bouncing back.
"This is what I’ve been doing it for, playoffs."