Preparation is key for Blues' Miller
New team's style means making adjustments, but Miller is embracing challenge
ST. LOUIS -- There is just the slightest trace of irritation in Ryan Miller's voice when he's asked about the adjustment to facing significantly fewer shots every night now that he sports a St. Louis Blues jersey instead of the one belonging to NHL sad sacks the Buffalo Sabres.
Just the slightest tick. A kind of tremor of annoyance.
"I think just keeping your focus and then knowing that you're playing in the NHL, there's going to be some quality shots," Miller told ESPN.com. "You might not get the same number of shots against, and [the Blues] do a great job of defending. You still have to be prepared. There are things that happen over the course of a night that are unlikely. There are things that happen where you're going to have to kill some penalties.
"Like I said, it's the NHL, there are going to be some moments where you have to defend the net. It's not just going to be, sit there and watch how great these guys play. There's still a job to do."
Not that we were suggesting that Miller sits in his crease with his skates up on old crates reading back issues of ESPN The Magazine.
St. Louis Blues
"I know. But you hear it so much," the former Vezina Trophy winner said with a grin. "Sometimes I have to laugh because everyone's been asking it and I really, I don't know, people seem to be curious about it, but it's also like no one wants to hear a goalie complain about seeing fewer shots."
Fair enough. But make no mistake, when you move from the sub-basement, where the Sabres have existed for much of the past couple of seasons, to a team that is looking to fill in the final pieces to a Stanley Cup puzzle -- which would be a first-ever Stanley Cup for the franchise -- you instantly become the single most important addition of this season's trade period and maybe the single-most important addition in Blues history.
"The adjustments that Ryan Miller's had to make and is making now, he's not being peppered by 40 shots," former NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a longtime national broadcast analyst, told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "It's 23 or under and mentally you have to stay in the game every single second because a goal you give up on a great team is way more magnified than a goal you give up on a team that gives up a lot of shots. You're a hero when you stop 36 of 40, but if you give up three on 19, you're more scrutinized."
Miller is 10-3-1 with a .920 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. He has given up two or fewer goals in nine of those games. He has faced more than 30 shots only twice. In Buffalo, Miller faced more than 30 shots 32 times.
"Yeah, there's an adjustment," Miller said. "This team definitely has a few things that are a little bit different about it as far as reads and where they challenge, just subtle little things. I don't want to get too far into the tactics but there are things they do differently that we were doing different in Buffalo. Not that we hadn't done them before in Buffalo, it's just different pieces of a system that you use, different coaches or different players, and the way [coach Ken Hitchcock] has everything set up here, it just takes a little time to get completely comfortable.
"Obviously, it's just a hockey game. You try and fit in and do what you've got to do and that kind of stuff. I think that overall for the big picture, you just try and learn piece by piece and get comfortable."
The fact of the matter is that there is always an adjustment period for players coming to new teams. It is one of the untold stories of the trade-deadline frenzy. There is always the buzz of anticipation as contending teams add pieces they hope will provide the missing link to a championship, push them over the top when the games have their greatest meaning.
But as we have seen with Martin St. Louis and the New York Rangers, Marian Gaborik and the Los Angeles Kings and Thomas Vanek with the Montreal Canadiens, trades sometimes take time to pay dividends. Gaborik and Vanek have found a groove with their playoff-bound teams, while St. Louis still struggles with the Rangers.
For Miller, though, his transition to the Blues has been virtually seamless, and that is a function of the structure put in place by the Blues under GM Doug Armstrong and Hitchcock. It's also a function of Miller's savvy and exceptionally high hockey IQ.
Veteran defenseman Barret Jackman said he has been impressed with Miller's thirst to understand exactly what the team is doing, how it is going to react to certain things.
"It's just the questions that he asks," Jackman told ESPN.com. Some goalies are interested only in stopping pucks, but not Miller.
"He's really asked a lot of questions about what we're thinking on certain plays, on the PK what shooting lanes we will be trying to take away," the Blues' elder statesman said. "He's a real student of the game."
Pang said Miller's reputation for preparation preceded him, but watching him up close has only added to the mystique.
"His attention to detail is better than what I thought it was," said Pang, who does color on the Blues broadcasts. "I'd heard the stories. His astuteness. His preparation in terms of watching other goalies. If you want a scouting report on another goalie's tendencies, ask Ryan Miller."
Naturally, Miller is also an avid student of opposing shooters' habits.
"I think it's a lost art knowing what hand another player shoots on the other team. If his tendency is to make a 2-on-1 pass or is he a shooter on a 2-on-1," Pang said. "I think more and more goalies have become blockers and less have the hockey sense to determine that, and that impresses me a lot about Ryan Miller."
The Blues are looking to erase more than four decades of Stanley Cup futility, and Miller is likewise looking to expand his own top end. He earned a silver medal with Team USA in Vancouver in 2010, falling one goal short of the gold. While with the Sabres, Miller and his teammates never advanced past the conference finals.
Miller's former coach Lindy Ruff, now the bench boss of the surging Dallas Stars, has no doubt Miller will be a good fit for the Blues.
"I think he's played in plenty of pressure-cooker opportunities," Ruff said. "You know, to play in the gold-medal game in Vancouver and go deep into the playoffs with Buffalo and win some playoff series, he knows what it takes. He knows key saves at key times, and even more than that, not letting in that goal that hurts you. He's fought those wars. He's been there. He's got that experience. I think he's a heck of a goaltender."
Miller, of course, is aware of the pressure on the Blues to win this spring and on him to help make that happen.
"You have to prepare. I've gone into other situations just kind of letting myself say, 'We'll see what happens.' You can't force anything. Whatever's going to happen is going to happen, but also preparing and allowing yourself to think, 'This could be a two-month run and it could have a nice ending,' " Miller said. "You allow yourself to think positively and try and get in the right frame of mind where you have to expect you're going to go out and win hockey games.
"And when you don't win, you have to be able to regroup and expect to win the next night. It's certainly a shift in mindset from earlier in the year till now. It's something that I'm trying to bring up to speed with these guys in this locker room, because it's pretty apparent where their minds are at and I know where I need to be.
"I feel like every game has just been a little learning experience where just trying to focus on getting a few things right as far as communication, interacting with the D, making the right reads at the right time. Just trying to set up my reads and set up my save skills with this team and get out of the habits that I had built to make saves and reads based around Buffalo, which is just a different team."
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