One season ago, Ryan Miller was helping lead the Sabres to the best record in the NHL. This season, Miller is shouldering the load to keep Buffalo around .500 as it is missing its high-octane offense.
In this week's Facing Off, the All-Star goalie tells us why he's sick of talking about the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, what it was like watching his brother win the Stanley Cup last season and how he's trying to make life better for cancer victims in his community.
Miller's Quick Facts
" Miller was selected in the fifth round (138th overall) by Buffalo in the 1999 draft.
" He won the Hobey Baker Award in 2001 with Michigan State.
" Miller holds the NCAA shutout record (26).
" He owns a clothing store in East Lansing, Mich., called "The Refinery."
Question from Amber: As a rookie, you led the Sabres to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. How do you explain why goalies like you, Cam Ward, Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden had such amazing playoff success as rookies?
Answer from Ryan Miller: I had a few years to work up to it. I wouldn't say I was a complete rookie. That was my fourth year pro, so I had time to work on some things. I wouldn't classify myself with those guys quite yet. They have all won Stanley Cups, which is how players are ultimately judged.
Q: What do you remember most about your first NHL start?
A: I didn't really know where I was 'til the third period. We were winning 2-0 in the third, and we ended up losing 4-3 in overtime. It was going well 'til I figured out I was playing against Martin Brodeur. I still remember having pins and needles all day. I was so anxious to get out there. I was trying my hardest to stop everything; I was too energetic. That's probably what got me into trouble later in the game.
Q: Last season, the Sabres led the NHL in goals en route to the Presidents' Trophy. This season, without Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, it's a different story. For you as a goalie, the margin of error is smaller. How does this change your approach to the game?
A: I hope it makes me a better player. It's true, last year, no matter what went wrong, we thought we would win. It's a new challenge every year. I don't think you can put too much stock into saying "I have to do this." You have to be able to go out and just play hockey without worrying about everything. I could get really philosophical here and explain the difference between "I have to do well" and "I want to do well." There's a difference between that mind-set and preparing to just go out and do your job.
Q: When Briere and Drury were making their decisions as free agents, did you lobby for either of them to stay in Buffalo, knowing how good the team was?
A: No, not really. Everyone knew what the situation was and each person has to choose what is best for them. They both chose different options. Everyone in Buffalo would have liked for it to work out, but there are so many factors that play in.
Q: Were you surprised that they both left?
A: Oh. yeah. Up until July 1, the way they were talking, I thought they were both coming back. I played golf with Drury during the Stanley Cup finals. We got about 13 holes in; it was just the two of us, we were shooting the s--- and just talking about the team and how things were going to play out and neither guy gave me any indication they would be leaving. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision that we'll never know about. You just have to respect their decision; you can't change it.
Q: Is it hard to deal with?
A: As a team, I've been trying to get rid of this built-in excuse that is kind of lingering over us. It can be a crutch to explain why we are losing. What it really comes down to is the guys in the locker room. We as a group need to step up and play. When I talk about those guys leaving, I think we need to move on. I still have a lot of respect for both of them. I learned a lot from them, even little things in practice. They are great leaders and have competitive spirits. I think having played with them will help me out in my career.
Q: You are a pretty mild-mannered guy. But when you started for the East in last season's All-Star Game, was there any one guy who made the experience more special for you?
A: Yeah. They had me sitting next to Martin Brodeur. Cristobal Huet was sitting next to his teammate, Sheldon Souray. It was cool for me because I have always looked up to Marty since he came into the league. When he won his first Cup, I was really pulling for him because I always identified with him, because he was so young and I was young too at the time. I liked the way he played and competed. My game is nothing like his stylewise, but I just liked cheering for him. So, it was really cool being able to talk hockey with him and to start ahead of Brodeur at the All-Star Game [laughs] was really cool.
Q: If you were to ask NHL GMs whom they would rather have as their goaltender -- Huet, Manny Fernandez, Martin Biron, Tomas Vokoun, Marc Denis, Jose Theodore, Dwayne Roloson or Ryan Miller -- it's fair to say the majority would pick you. But all those goalies make more money than you. What do you think of that?
A: I never expected to be playing hockey for money. I thought Michigan State was the best hockey ever, but when my cousins made the NHL, I started figuring it out. It was like, "Wow, you can play hockey as a career? Cool!" [Laughs] So, honestly, I love what I do, and Buffalo has been fun the last few years. A lot of the guys you mentioned have been around longer than me. I'm a big believer that you have to work your way up. I think I have raised my level a bit each year, so I'll leave it at that.
Q: What is it going to take for Buffalo to be able to hold on to you when you become an unrestricted free agent after next season?
A: We'll see how things go. Buffalo has been great for me. I feel comfortable here. As a goaltender, you always appreciate playing in a city that appreciates you. So, we've had fun and success here and the fans have faith in me. So, when it comes time to negotiate, I am confident we can sit down face-to-face and get something done.
Q: You are a huge pillar in the community, both on and off the ice. Your cousin Matt passed away last month from leukemia. You, along with your dad, have already started the Steadfast Foundation. What is that all about?
A: It started out as something to help inspire Matt and help raise money in the community. We started out selling T-shirts with my face and mask on it. Then, it got bigger and bigger. Last year, we threw a party and raised more money then we ever thought we could. Thanks to the generosity of the Buffalo community, the foundation has been able to really help some families in both Buffalo and in Michigan. It's really blowing up right now. We are working on getting contracts with some local hospitals here in Buffalo that would give us a chance to work on creating a positive environment for kids while they are getting cancer treatment.
Q: Do you get your teammates involved, as well?
A: I make them come to my event, which I make sure is a lot of fun. It's a fashion show, so I make them model the clothes. This year, we are working on getting some bands together for the event in February. The foundation really helps out in the community, so it's rewarding.
[For more information on the Steadfast Foundation, visit the Web site at www.thesteadfastfoundation.com.]
Q: Your brother Drew made his NHL debut last season in the playoffs for Anaheim. Six weeks later, he was a Stanley Cup champion. What do you remember most about that?
A: I was there for the first game he played in the finals. I was with my dad and the Ducks had dressed so many forwards for the warm-ups. We looked at each other and weren't sure if he would play. It was pretty emotional when, after the flood, he came out and was on the bench dressed and ready to play before the game. I was excited and I was proud. It was an awesome experience for me as an older brother.
Q: I know how superstitious hockey players are. Did you touch the Cup at all when Drew had his day with it?
A: [Laughs] He hit me in the hip with it by accident. I am pretty superstitious. I touched it when I was a kid. I was 15 years old when Dan Cole, a former Michigan State player, won it with the Devils. But when Drew had the Cup for a day, I stayed away from it. I'll take my chances at winning that thing on my own, so I'll wait.
Q: I guess the ultimate hockey experience would be to have a "Niedermayer moment," when the two of you as brothers would be able to share the Cup.
A: I wasn't there for the clinching game. He didn't dress for that game, but he went on the ice to celebrate with the team after the game. When I got him on the phone, the first thing he said to me was, "Man, we've got to do this together."
Q: In the last few years, the NHL has streamlined goalie equipment. What's the most vulnerable part of your body now, and is there a shooter in the league whose shot you feel right through the equipment?
A: The place that hurts is right at the top of the leg. They trimmed down all of the padding on the inside of the pant, so even when you get your legs together, it will hurt if a slap shot gets you there. As far as heavy shots, [Sheldon] Souray can really blast it. Thankfully, he's in the other conference now. [Zdeno] Chara, when he gets a wide-open look, that puck is really moving.
Q: Tied game, third period, who is the last player you want to see coming in on a breakaway?
A: [Alexei] Kovalev. I don't what it is, but he has got me on a few breakaways. He hasn't scored on all of them, but he's had me beat a few times and maybe has hit the crossbar. He's good at changing the angle on the shot because he's so fluid, skating and shooting. But I've been watching tape of him, so we'll see.
Q: If you're starting an NHL team today, who is the one goalie you would want to have?
A: Oh, I can't go against myself here [laughs]. So it's me. You got to have faith in your game.
Q: You mentioned you had three cousins who played in the NHL [Kip, Kelly and Kevin], and, of course, you and your brother. So, let's say there's a pickup game with the Miller family, the Howe family and the Sutter family. How's this thing going to play out?
A: Well, we have the more complete team. There are 10 Millers total that played at Michigan State. Two of us are goalies and two are defensemen. So, even as tremendous as the Howe and Sutter families are, I don't think they had a goalie. So, maybe we have the advantage [laughs].
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.