Sabres Notebook: Sabres hopes for excellence still hinge on Ryan Miller
Thursday October 27, 2011 | By:Mike Haim, Special to Metro
A two-game losing streak by any team in any sport should hardly be cause for panic, but that overreaction seems to be standard practice for some fans of the Buffalo Sabres.
Back-to-back losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning, marking the Sabres’ first losing streak of the season, have triggered the usual rounds of finger-pointing. While generally premature, some of it may not be totally misplaced when it comes to goaltending.
Any time Ryan Miller allows a weak goal, there is an inevitable undercurrent of grumbling about his penchant for not being able to come up with an easy save. I’ve heard folks voice their opinion that Jhonas Enroth should be given a chance to play more often (perhaps the same people who once thought the Bills should have started Frank Reich at quarterback instead of Jim Kelly) or that Miller should be traded while his value is still high.
Most of the time I dismiss those knee-jerk reactions, as I think the bar for Miller has been set too high, that he has an impossible task to live up to the past local glories of future Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek.
Hasek was one of a kind, a goalie who thrived on playing by instinct. Miller, on the other hand, is very clinical in his preparation and is quick to analyze and recognize where he can improve. I’ve lost count at the number of times, in post-game media scrums, that Miller has talked about “making reads” or discussed finer points of his positioning.
However, I’ve also lost count of how many games Miller has allowed a goal shortly after his teammates have scored or had a shutout spoiled in the last few minutes of the third period.
Also, look back to 2005-06 and 2006-07, the first two years after the lockout. Buffalo lost one regular season game – one! – after leading by two or more goals. The Sabres also made good playoff runs in those years and Miller’s reputation soared, with “world class” being a normal description for his play.
However, in the next four seasons, desperate to reclaim their status as one of the league’s elite teams, the Sabres lost 19 such games. Miller’s reputation somehow remained intact.
Now it may seem unfair to focus on a guy whose 2011-12 goals against average increased to 2.01 after he allowed three goals to the Lightning on Tuesday night. But the losses, like many others in previous seasons, do suggest that Miller needs to become more of a dominant force.
Newcomers and veterans on the Sabres roster can all have the best years of their respective careers, and it still won’t be enough to lift the team’s fortunes. Miller has to surpass those performances, since bad breaks getting past him affect the team’s psyche more than a bad pass or an errant shot.
Miller has shared one common trait with Hasek: an ability to win. Miller is just 10 victories away from Hasek’s team record of 234. Miller has recorded 224 wins in just 406 games; Hasek needed 491 contests to reach his 234. Miller could get the record by winning 10 straight starts and he still won’t be considered the best goaltender in team history. That’s unlikely to change, even with a Stanley Cup win.
Given the style of play in their respective eras, comparing Miller to Hasek may not be practical. Suffice to say, though, that Hasek’s candidacy for the Hockey Hall of Fame will not be debated, while Miller hasn’t quite earned his free pass just yet. Miller’s uphill climb is magnified when comparing his career accomplishments to other current NHL goalies.
Among active goalies with 250 or more career games, Miller ranks just 13th in goals against average. His 23 career shutouts also appear pretty ordinary, considering he’s played in 406 games. Among active netminders with 20 or more shutouts (there are 21 of them), his 5.7% shutout rate is fifth-lowest.
Four goalies – Cristobal Huet, Tim Thomas, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Manny Legace - have more shutouts in fewer games. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has 21 whitewashes in just 185 games, an 11.4% rate. And New York Ranger Henrik Lundqvist has played in just six more games than Miller but has 13 more blankings.
While shutouts may not be the best barometer of a goalie’s overall effectiveness, they do indicate an ability to be dominant. It’s exactly what the Sabres need Miller to be if they’re going to have a legitimate chance at a championship.
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