Buffalo's Ryan Miller could be latest Olympic difference-maker in net
TORONTO -- In 1998, the Czech Republic entered the first of the NHL's foray into the Olympics as not quite the gold-medal favorite.
Sure, the Czechs had won the 1996 world championship and would go on to win three straight world titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001, but they weren't the heavy favorites going into Nagano, Japan.
The United States had just captured the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, featuring best-on-best competition, while Canada and Russia were loaded as usual with their NHL stars. The betting money revolved mostly around those three countries.
But riding the superhuman goaltending of Dominik Hasek, the Czechs brought home the gold medal in 1998, proving once again what a hot goalie can do for you, especially in a short time span.
There's no best-of-seven series in the Olympics (if that were the case, you could almost guarantee a Canada-Russia final). Once you reach the medal round, it's a one-game knockout.
Goaltending always seems so crucial in that type of environment. Hasek stoned the favored Canadians in the 1998 semifinals. Belarus shocked star-studded Sweden in the 2002 Olympic quarterfinals in Salt Lake City after Swedish goalie Tommy Salo let in Vladimir Kopat's shot from long range. Then, there was Switzerland's Martin Gerber shutting out Canada at the 2006 Torino Games. It was only a round-robin game, but you could make the argument the Canadians were mentally done right then and there.
Which brings us to the 2010 Olympics. Canada, Russia and Sweden are the top three favorites, but the player who can make the difference for underdog Team USA is Ryan Miller. The Buffalo Sabres netminder would arguably be handed the Vezina Trophy if the award were given out today, as underlined by his league-leading save percentage (.937) and goals-against average (1.89) heading into Monday's action.
He's America's greatest chance at knocking off one of the big boys come February.
"It's a short tournament in Vancouver," Toronto Maple Leafs blueliner Mike Komisarek, a likely teammate of Miller's in February, told ESPN.com on Monday. "A hot goalie can really carry a team for those two weeks. It's just a matter of getting that confidence and riding the success of the goalie. So, you got to feel good about the United States' chances with having a guy like Ryan Miller or Tim Thomas."
Thomas, as shown by his Vezina Trophy form last season, can also be that guy. But judging on Thomas' recent form, Miller will be carrying most of the mail come Vancouver.
"He's been on all season long," said Sabres teammate Derek Roy, who attended Canada's Olympic camp in August. "We're playing well around him, but he's made some incredible saves."
The Sabres have tightened up defensively around him, no question. The team has gone from 14th last season in goal against per game (2.79) to second in the NHL (2.15) entering Monday night's game in Toronto. It's a dramatic defensive improvement that both Miller and his teammates can share in.
"There's some nights where we've done a good job protecting around him," Sabres head Lindy Ruff said. "But I think it's the saves you get when the game is on the line that really gives your team confidence, or deflates a team. He's been able to give us those big saves at real timely stages of the game where everybody on the bench is on their feet. We've had a few periods where we've been flat and he's been rock solid, and you're able to get your legs underneath you and play well."
Miller has been among the NHL's elite group of netminders for a few seasons, but this season is setting him apart. Why?
"It's a combination of things," Miller said Monday. "I paid attention to some things I needed to work [on] throughout the summer. A lot of it came down to conditioning and habits off the ice. Not that I didn't work hard before, but I changed some stuff as to help my body last for a season. That's been my focus the last few years after that year [2007-08] I played 76 games and I felt my play held us out of the playoffs."
It's interesting Miller would bring up his body. Looking at him out of his equipment Monday ... I swear, if he stood sideways I would lose sight of him. He's easily the thinnest goalie in the league. I told him to eat more pasta.
"And I've lost six pounds since the start of the season," he said.
Obviously, It hasn't affected his play on the ice. I asked Ruff, a member of Canada's 2010 Olympic coaching staff, if he would have any tips for Team Canada ahead of the Feb. 21 preliminary-round encounter between the North American teams. So Lindy, will you tell coach Mike Babcock about any holes in Miller's game?
"I don't think there is right now," Ruff said. "If there was, other [NHL] teams would have it already. He's just been solid. He doesn't have any holes."
Miller smiled when asked about the chance he might play against Canada and be on different sides from his longtime NHL coach.
"That'll be a little different," Miller said. "I'm sure they'll be looking to him for some tendencies if that is, indeed, my game to play. If it comes about, I'm sure he won't tip his hand too much about his goalie considering there's a lot of playoff implications coming out of the Olympics."
Hmmm, country versus club. Interesting dilemma, especially with the Sabres looking like a contender this season.
"From a professional standpoint, from a two-week standpoint, you're playing in a tournament where he's going to do his best to beat us and we're going to do our best to beat him," Ruff said. "That's just the way you have to approach it."
Ruff, for one, will not underestimate Team USA. Not with the guy they'll have in goal.