From the personal triumph of carrying Team USA on his back to a silver metal to Sidney Crosby's overtime goal. From establishing himself as the best goalie in the world to being bumped from the playoffs by the sixth-place Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres superstar goalie Ryan Miller must have thought he saw it all in 2009-10. That is until this year. Despite injuries and exhaustionat one point being played 31 games in a rowand mounting criticism over expectations and his contract, Miller has pulled himself back into Olympic form. Now, the weight of the playoffs rests on his shoulders.
If there's such a thing as "rock bottom", Miller bumped into it on February 13 when he allowed seven goals in an overtime loss to the New York Islanders. After the game, reporters and the supreme competitor got into an insult-laden confrontation. Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan threw the ultimate dagger in a postgame column, calling Miller a "run-of-the-mill goalie". The next game, Lindy Ruff played rookie Jhonas Enroth. The mentally worn-down netminder sat in the press box and watched his team win in a shootout over Montreal.
There's very little these days that separates the best goaltenders from the average. Most goalies are big, move quickly, use the butterfly style and are well-trained in positioning. What separates the .910 save percentage starting goaltenders from the .930 types is focus. Recently, I spoke to a college goaltending coach who said the most difficult part of playing the position is the mental strain. When he was a player, even his family, friends and girlfriend were barred from speaking with him on game day. Imagine going through the mental preparation 31 games in a row with the pressure of one of the most critical fan bases in sports, as Miller did.
Since "rock bottom", the Sabres star has been exactly what we expect and what Buffalo needs to be a playoff contender. The seven games after the goalie's rest saw no more than two goals allowed and save percentages ranging from .913 to .976. Because coach Lindy Ruff has opted to play prevent defense in several games after getting a lead, Miller has been forced to make miraculous saves in high pressure situations. As per usual, Ruff will let his team sink or swim on the back of his goalie.
While the Sabres have been favored to make playoffs due to games in hand and a beneficial trade-deadline move to add Brad Boyes, there will be several factors working against Buffalo's stopper down the stretch, like
It's become blatantly obvious that Buffalo made a boneheaded offseason decision to allow Toni Lydman to walk. The current Ducks defenseman is plus-25 with 19 assists and 143 blocked shots this season. In 2009-10 with the Sabres, Lydman was plus-10 in 67 games, posting 20 points as well. Not to mention the 33-year-old would have brought veteran presence to a young team whose captain Craig Rivet had been a healthy scratch up until he was waived.
Lydman's exit combined with that of Henrik Tallinder to New Jersey caused Buffalo to bring in Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn. Leopold has performed offensively scoring 11 goals and 33 points, but has blocked 44 less shots than Lydman and is minus-3, Morrisonn has just five points and is minus-1 with 66 blocked shots in 48 games.
The Sabres put more onus on the young D-men in front of Miller, often causing mixed results. Last year's top rookie Tyler Myers was plus-7 over a recent 16 game stretch. Before that, he was minus-16 for the season. Buffalo will have to hope Mike Weber, a rookie, can continue to be one of the team's top performing and most consistent defenseman. He is plus-10 despite only playing 41 games.
Another member of the under-25 Sabres defenseman club is Andrej Sekera, who has gone from great to healthy-scratched back to top-of-the-line. Sekera bounced back well after a benching, but mostly on the offensive side. He is minus-1 in 58 games with only 62 blocked shots.
The only true veteran leader and consistent performer the rag tag group has is Steve Montador, who is plus-14 this season with 112 blocked shots in 57 games.
With "inconsistent" in the description for most of Buffalo's defensemen, the pressure will continue to end up on Miller to take down two-on-ones and breakaways as well as battle through screens by big forwards pushing his guys around.
Drew Stafford was the answer for about a week, to the post-Briere era failure to put the puck in the net by Sabres forwards. Stafford has 24 goals, 12 of which came in the form of four hat tricks, and only 14 assists. In other words, when he hasn't been scoring, he hasn't been creating. And since in the book next to regression to the mean, you see a guy who gets four hat tricks when he's never scored more than 20 goals in a season, it is unlikely that Buffalo can count on Stafford to carry any sort of load over the pivotal stretch. After a hat trick on February 13 against the Islanders, Stafford has just one goal in eight games.
Adding Brad Boyesa one-time 40-goal scorer albeit with some pretty good names on his line in St. Louiswill no doubt help the offense. And Thomas Vanek is a quality producer with 52 points in 63 games. After that, it gets ugly for the Sabres on offense. Derek Roy is still Buffalo's fourth best scorer despite only playing 35 games before injury ended his season. Jason Pominville is far from living up to the $5 million he's making with only 35 points in 54 games and Tim Connolly is a complete mess. Lately, Buffalo has relied on Mike Grier and Paul Gaustad to get things going.
Just see how long that lasts. Not to mention that Patrick Kaleta has just eight points in 48 games and Rob Niedermayer still has zero goals in 52 games. Not to mention the underperformance by young forwards Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennisboth of whom were supposed to be 20-plus type scorers yet have only 21 combined in over 100 games.
Since scoring six goals against the Islanders February 13, the Sabres' offense has netted more than three goals only twice (that includes empty netters) in nine games and less than three five times. As if there wasn't enough pressure playing 35 of the last 36 games, every goal allowed is amplified by Buffalo's inability to score goals. In the last 10 games, eight were separated by one goal.
No Trustworthy Backup
Patrick Lalime is still on the Buffalo Sabres, but prospect Jhonas Enroth is the backup goaltender. Enroth has played well, but with less than 20 games remaining, might be lucky to see two. Buffalo has so many important games battling for the eighth place including playing the Maple Leafs twice, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Rangers once and the Bruins, Penguins and Devils sprinkled in. If Miller were to play in 17 of the last 19, he would land at 70 for the season, and that's with missing several games early in the year due to injury.
It seems that since the Sabres were a goal crease away from winning the Stanley Cup in 1999, coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier have made it their model to put mediocre players around the best goalie they can find. This year, Miller's save percentage is down about 15 points from his Vezina winning season in 2009-10, in part because both the offensive and defensive deck has been stacked against him. No matter, as despite the team's futility and the loss of defensive talent, Miller will shoulder most of the blame if the Sabres fail to make the playoffs.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.