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A DASH OF SEASONING DOES WONDERS FOR AMERKS' MILLER

It wasn't as if Ryan Miller thought the two men were lying. After all, the information was coming from the general manager and coach of the Buffalo Sabres, his future bosses. It was more Miller didn't believe them, like many a 21-year-old who thought he had the world figured out.

Rookies can be that way. Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff certainly knew what they were talking about, Miller thought, but maybe they didn't truly understand how good the kid was. Miller knew he was better than good. Everybody told him so. Need proof? Check the gaudy numbers.

He was 73-19-12 in three years at Michigan State. He had a 1.54 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in three years with the Spartans. He had 26 shutouts, an NCAA record. He won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top collegiate player, as a sophomore.

Miller thought the Sabres had miscalculated. Really, it was the other way around.

"It's one thing coming from college, where it was easy and you didn't have any adversity," Miller said. "I had a lot of things going my way. I was constantly looked at as a can't-miss NHL prospect. Well, the NHL is pretty hard. The AHL is challenging.

"When I came in, Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff told me exactly how it was going to be. I knew it was going to be a transition, and I knew it was going to be tough, but I think I underestimated that step."

Understand, Miller didn't have an attitude problem. He had a competitive balance problem, which is to say he became unbalanced when he had problems competing. He had a memorable postgame meltdown in Buffalo after getting beat up for seven goals against Detroit, a performance that left him near tears and angry about the criticism that followed after he stormed away from his locker after making a terse statement.

It reeked of immaturity and left many questioning his temperament. Looking back, he had been spoiled at Michigan State, where he would have been better off with a few more losses. One issue he had was evaluating his performance during games and getting distracted. Poor performances became worse. At times, he became volcanic.

People appreciated his fire and work habits, but some wondered whether he would get fitted for a straitjacket if he didn't find a way to put bad goals and tough losses behind him. Miller patterned his insatiable desire to win after none other than Patrick Roy, who retired with 551 victories.

Well, St. Patrick also had 315 losses.

Miller understands as much now at age 24. There are only a few goalies who successfully jumped from juniors, college or high school hockey and into the National Hockey League. The process for goalies is often a lengthy one, and there are no shortcuts. It cannot be simulated on a chalkboard or learned from a book.

At times, Miller's three years in the American Hockey League must have felt like 30. Finally, he has tackled the mental side without losing his competitive edge. He's parking the poor performances in the same lot as the great ones, somewhere behind him. The next step in this eternal evolution is leading a team through the AHL playoffs, which resume today in Hamilton.

"Right now I'm just trying to bring the right mental attitude to every game, every night. This is the stage to test out and see if I'm doing it right," Miller said. "If you're looking at this as a class, I would say this is a good midterm. I'll say the final exam is translated into a different league altogether, which is the NHL."

In many ways, he can thank the NHL lockout for advancing his development. The labor dispute removed his biggest target. He spent the season in Rochester refining every aspect of his game. If you thought he had the tools before, you should see him now.

He's far more under control than he was earlier in his career. He processes the game faster, which has helped get him into position sooner. He seems more in command, much quieter in the crease.

"There are no grand gestures," Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi said. "It's all position. He makes the net small as much as possible."

Miller has stopped 59 of 61 shots in the playoffs against Hamilton. In the opener Wednesday, Miller was down, dead and presumably pleading for mercy from Bulldogs center Steve Ott on a breakaway when he calmly kicked away a backhander. He robbed Corey Locke. He stopped Jason Ward at the doorstep.

He kept Rochester in the game until Hamilton goalie Yann Danis finally buckled in the third period in the Amerks' 3-1 win. Miller was named the first star after making 25 saves look easy. The one goal he allowed was forgotten in no time.

"You talk about evolution. It's maturity, it's experience, they're all the same things," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "He's going through a process, and he's learning as he goes. The competition this year has been higher. Obviously, the next level is the highest. He's evolving and taking everything in stride."

The Sabres are anxious to see where Miller goes from here. Martin Biron might want to take note because Miller was the favorite to be their No. 1 goalie had the lockout ended during the season. Buffalo will have a difficult time ignoring his improvement if the league ever gets going again.

Miller wants to prove himself again, too, and show how he's ready for the NHL. The kid is ready because, well, he's no longer a kid. He's a man.

"He's like a fine wine," Corsi said. "You have to rotate it until the sediments fall in the right place. At one point, you let the top off and let it breathe. And then, ahhh, you smell the bouquet."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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