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MILLER'S TALE
SPARTAN ATTITUDE PUTS RYAN MILLER IN SABRES' LINE OF SUCCESSION BEHIND THE DOMINATOR

Picture this:

The year is 2011. Sabres captain J.P. Dumont is handing the Stanley Cup to longtime teammate Dmitri Kalinin, both veterans drenched in sweat and smiles. Kalinin skates his lap with the big prize and, before joining Dumont in a bear hug with assistant coach Rob Ray, delivers it into the hands of Buffalo's stalwart goalie.

The crowd at the bankhere.com Arena roars as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner hoists the Cup, goalie mask still covering his face. This is the greatest moment in the life of . . .

Here, the vision gets hazy. Clearly, the man behind the mask is not Dominik Hasek, who has long since returned home to coach the Czech national team. But is it former Hasek backup Martin Biron, who truly came into his own once the Dominator vacated the Sabres' crease? Is it Mika Noronen, who was the 1999-2000 AHL rookie of the year and never lost a step en route to NHL greatness?

Or is it Ryan Miller, who in 2001 stood third in line to Hasek's throne and was fast proving himself to be one of the greatest college goaltenders of all time?

Today, while the Sabres try to secure a berth in the 2000-2001 playoffs, Miller's Michigan State Spartans hold No. 1 rankings in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll and the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine poll. As of Friday, the Hobey Baker Award candidate led the NCAA in save percentage (.951) and goals against average (1.29), and needed just one more shutout to take sole possession of the NCAA's career shutout record.

All this, and Miller is only a sophomore - a sophomore who already belongs to the Sabres.

"He's definitely got pro written all over him, in terms of size and the way he plays the game," Spartans coach Ron Mason said. "He brings a nice presence to the ice."

He also brings a pedigree: Miller, whom the Sabres selected in the fifth round of the 1999 draft (138th overall), is a cousin of Pittsburgh Penguin Kip Miller and Kip's brothers, ex-NHLers Kelly and Kevin. Ryan Miller is the ninth member of his family to play hockey at MSU.

But he's only the second member of the clan to play goalie, which might account for his very unsnobbish approach to the position. Miller studies everyone, from Hasek and Curtis Joseph to the Pee Wee goalies at the local rink.

"Those kids, you see them get scored on and you think, "He wasn't doing that,' " Miller said. "It reminds you."

The result is a hybrid style that defies definition, denies shooters and continues to impress the Sabres' scouts.

"If the save requires a butterfly, he does a butterfly. If the save requires a stand-up-and-challenge, he does that," Buffalo director of player personnel Don Luce said. "He kind of combines the styles and does what he needs to to make the stop."

At 20 years old, Miller is still refining his game. He has no intention of challenging for the Sabres starting job any time soon, planning instead to play out his eligibility and then head dutifully to the minors.

"Two more years in college is the way to go if I'm going to crack that lineup," he said of the Sabres. "I have a lot of respect for what they do as far as developing players, especially goalies. I think they've done great things for Biron and Noronen, as far as keeping them in the minors and bringing them up at opportune times.

"I don't want to go up when I know I'm not ready."

Winning personality

Miller has a standard-issue goalie's build, but his body took the long route to its current dimensions. As recently as three years ago, Miller was a 5-foot-8 high school senior; now he stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 160 pounds.

"I'm still getting used to it," he said of his newly-lengthened legs. "I'm sort of a late bloomer, so I've only had a few years on these guys."

Miller credits golf with his smooth transition to lankiness. As an unforeseen byproduct of his duffing addiction, swinging clubs every summer helped Miller maintain his hand-eye coordination. That's one argument Miller might make to Mason if he decides to follow through on his idea of trying out for the MSU golf team in the offseason.

It seems unlikely, anyway, that Mason would try to stand in Miller's way. The coach, who has mentored the likes of Rod Brind'Amour, Bob Essensa, Bryan Smolinski and Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley, described Miller as having "a real leadership quality about him," and called Miller "a real well-organized kid, period."

He's also a real smart kid, with a devotion to his course work and a dry sense of humor. Miller confessed to one superstition - he takes the ice before warm-ups every game night and recites a litany of instructions to himself - but he said he has never recited incantations in the crease or conversed with his goalposts.

"I appreciate all the hard work they do," he said of the posts, "but we don't have a real close relationship."

At the center of MSU's full-blast Hobey Baker campaign on his behalf, Miller has managed to avoid taking himself too seriously. His lighthearted attitude permeates the rink, where teammates take good-natured shots at Miller's star status as they shoot at Miller himself.

"At practice, when we're doing drills, if one of them scores on me they start chirping, "Ho-bey Bak-er' and "Overrated,' " he said, chuckling. "When I go into other rinks, I have plenty of practice getting ragged."

Pure promise

Miller said he hasn't spoken with cousin Kip, the 1990 Hobey Baker winner, about the award, but he's talked to all three cousins about life in the NHL. Growing up around top-level hockey players gave Miller enough perspective to know that he's still a long way from the big leagues.

"The NHL is a big jump," he said. "I've got a lot of things to figure out, as a goalie and as a person."

That attitude is one of the things Luce likes about Miller.

"It shows that he has a little bit more knowledge of his position than most people," Luce said. "The goalie, if he makes a mistake it's a costly one. To take his time and get all the little bugs out, it takes longer for a goalie.

"He got to play with (his cousins), and probably that helped him develop quicker. He was playing against pros when he was a little kid."

Those who would mistake Miller's realistic outlook for a lack of ambition should remember that this is a sophomore starting for the top collegiate team in the nation.

Miller had to outplay senior Joe Blackburn, who was an All-American in 1998-99, to earn the job, and then set three Central Collegiate Hockey Association single-season records in 1999-2000. Miller's next shutout will be his 17th, breaking the 70-year-old career record of 16 set by Clarkson's Wally Easton in 1927-31. Miller's statistics after almost two seasons of play measure up to career numbers posted by collegiate luminaries like Michigan's Marty Turco, a member of the Dallas Stars; Minnesota's Robb Stauber, the only goalie ever to win the Hobey Baker; and Cornell's Ken Dryden, an NHL Hall-of-Famer.

"It's not so much that I'm not playing well; it's that he's playing incredible right now," said Blackburn, Miller's roommate on road trips. "Talent is really something you can't teach, and it's something he has."

That isn't news to the Sabres, who know a talented goalie when they see one. The organization's depth chart now includes four outstanding goalies from four countries: Hasek from the Czech Republic, Biron from Canada, Noronen from Finland and Miller, an American from East Lansing, Mich. Buffalo is looking at a real glut, but it's a good glut.

"We think," Luce said, "the you can never have enough good goalies."

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