BUFFALO -- Since getting a stay of execution by finally winning a game, the Buffalo Sabres have spent the last couple days accentuating all the positives of their new lease on life.
|Thanks to Ryan Miller, the Sabres are still playing. (Getty Images)|
They've even suggested that a momentum shift has taken place, one that will be intensified when they get back in front of their rabid fans and try to keep themselves alive in the Eastern Conference final.
And while all of that is certainly valid enough to give the league's regular-season champions a glimmer of hope to produce a miracle comeback in this series, the reality is that none would make a difference were it not for the play of goalie Ryan Miller.
Simply put, the former Michigan State college player of the year has single-handedly kept his team's season going, turning in back-to-back brilliant efforts to give the Sabres the opportunity to at least make history as one of the rare professional teams to come back from an 0-3 deficit.
"You can't say enough about the guy," Buffalo defenseman Henrik Tallinder said. "He's been great and with that kind of goaltending, we know we can still win it."
That's debatable. What isn't, however, is that Miller has been Buffalo's best player throughout the playoffs and seems to have taken his game to another level after the series switched to Ottawa and he was mildly called out by both coaches.
After being victimized by a couple of questionable goals in the first two games, Senators coach Bryan Murray noted before Game 3 that his team felt "we can score some goals on him," while at the same time Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff suggested that "Ryan needs to be better."
Although his play was not the biggest reason Buffalo dropped both those games in its own building, Miller still responded with a vengeance and nearly stole the third game for the visitors. The Sabres lost a 1-0 decision because of a fluke goal in that one, but when they were on the verge of being swept, he came up with another outstanding effort, making a number of huge stops, including several game-savers while his team was killing off a two-man penalty in the third period to let Buffalo escape with a narrow win and take the series back home.
"His response has been really excellent," Ruff said. "I think he sensed that we were struggling and he really tried to make a difference. He basically said, 'Don't worry about it, I got you guys covered.'"
That was par for the course, as far as his teammates were concerned.
"I don't know if he's the kind of guy who really needs to have his buttons pushed because he knows himself if maybe he's made some mistakes or could have done things better," Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman said. "But when people say things, I would think it's a really good motivating factor that everyone uses at some point in their career because you want to prove people wrong."
For his part, Miller insists that all the talk is cheap. He said he wasn't aware of the comments made by Murray -- who interestingly said the other day that what coaches say "should be taken with a grain of salt" -- and that the message he privately got from Ruff was quite different from what the coach said for public consumption.
"I don't really get too much about what Lindy does and for whatever reason, he's looking for reaction more than anything," Miller said. "The conversation we had was different, but the bottom line is that I know what I have to do to be effective in the playoffs."
Apparently that means not only carrying the team on his scrawny shoulders, but acting as a leader in the dressing room. Miller is only in his second full NHL season, but when everybody was writing off the Sabres before Game 4, he took the lead in maintaining a calm demeanor and trying to prevent panic from setting in among the troops. That's something that can't be underestimated, said co-captain Chris Drury.
"In my opinion, (the goalie) is the most important position in all of sports," Drury said. "When we look back there and see him, it gives us a lot of confidence. Even on off days you can just see his focus, and I think the rest of the guys feed off that on a daily basis."
And that's fine with Miller.
"I expect a lot of myself and I pride myself on being a competitor," he said. "That's what this team needs and obviously I'll have to play a big role from here on out."