The Buffalo Sabres have been on a tear, going 11-2-3 since Feb. 19 and narrowing what was once a 10-point deficit behind the eighth and final playoff spot to just one point entering Friday night’s tough matchup at Madison Square Garden against the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers.
Not surprisingly, leading the way in the Sabres’ late-season charge has been 2010 Olympic tournament MVP Ryan Miller. The 2009-10 Vezina Trophy winner has stopped 448 of 477 shots in his 15 starts during his team’s five-week run for a sparkling .939 save percentage.
Among the more insightful interviews in the NHL, Miller answered some questions via email during his team’s flight to New York on Thursday. I sent him the questions just before he boarded the flight.
LEBRUN: Your team has been on fire since mid-February. What sparked the turnaround in your mind? Was there a "moment" that changed everything, or was it more of a process?
MILLER: Personally, I think it was mainly attention to our high forward in the O-zone and neutral zone and playing better team defense. It allowed for more puck pressure and fewer odd-man rushes against. Teams have had to try to generate offense by working in our D-zone, and there are better odds we will have four to five guys back. I think it was a culmination of "enough is enough" with losing. It took us too long into the season to establish a system that played to our strengths as a team, but we have more of an identity now, and we have a chance to compete with the top teams.
LEBRUN: Is this the team, the way it is playing now, that you envisioned back in September?
MILLER: Not quite. Each year the lineup is never what you start with through injury and trade. ... This team is a little different than I expected. But we are becoming more effective as we gain confidence in our game. This team is starting to look like a team that can achieve. I always just expect attention to detail and a competitive attitude from our teams. We didn't have that early on. We are gaining some back now.
LEBRUN: Do you think given all the hype and preseason expectations that it was hard on your team to deal with it in the first half?
MILLER: Yes. This is by no means an excuse, but I think being labeled as "Cup Contenders" simply because of hype and our change in ownership hurt our mentality and approach. Instead of building toward smaller goals as a team and creating the culture and identity of a championship-caliber team, we skipped major steps in an our approach. ... Plus, we didn't earn or deserve the label at all, so instead of growing and building in a positive light toward being contenders by playing the games and going through the challenges, we were constantly viewed as failing in every situation in the fans' eyes and in the media, and we had to constantly answer for something that I don't think we should have been labeled. We were a talented team that needed to grow and find a core identity way before anyone should have called us a contender.
LEBRUN: You took some heat individually for your play earlier in the season, unfairly or not, but certainly your numbers have noticeably improved. Have you done anything differently?
MILLER: The goalie always gets heat. ... I don't blame fans or media for talking about hockey; it is fun to be passionate about the game. I try not to pay attention because, unless you have played goalie in the NHL, I don't think anyone can understand what it is like to stand in there and be one of us, to put yourself out there every night. This year, a lot of opinion I normally avoid or ignore was dragged into the locker room by the media, and I took it hard. But I kept working and searching for my comfort level. I finally remembered I love to play and I am not doing it for what people outside the locker think about me. I'm doing it because I love hockey and I love to win. I love making saves and being on a team. I love the challenge.
As for doing anything differently. ... Goalie reflects team. Team reflects goalie. Once I was healthy I started building back my focus and awareness, and that took some time. ... I noticed my game turning when my mind was more at ease and I settled down and allowed the play to unfold. ... All of which came when we started being a more responsible team. Knowing my guys are around me allows me to read the play and commit to saves. Without them, I have to cover more options, and the odds of making a save or second save aren't as good. Having the boys cover my back and work hard makes my job easier. Every goalie in history is a reflection of how well his team plays the game. It is a team sport, and a team effort is needed to win. I just need to do my part.