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Mind Games The best chance Buffalo has to change its sports history comes down to the space between Ryan Miller's ears. The good news: He seems ready

Ryan Miller knows. "Unique opportunity" is how the Sabres goalie describes it. And it's clear in the steady, piercing look in his eyes that Miller gets it. The heightened expectations, the excitement, the opportunity, the surreal nature of sudden celebrity. And yes, part of it has to do with facing down that side of his personality that can prevent him from playing his best. Inner conflict? Demons? Judge for yourself.

That inner conflict is one reason people around Ryan Miller don't want to hear too much about any "unique opportunity." Nevertheless, it doesn't make Miller's situation less real. And it goes like this:

Those electrifying Sabres, who as of late December had more points than any team in the league except one, could give this community its first major sports championship ever. Only a member of the Buffalo tribe can truly understand what that means. For you outsiders, think of it like this: It would finally put the skids on the defeatist culture that has such a stronghold here.

Don't underestimate the moment: The Sabres' chances to win it all so far appear as good or better than the Bills' in their Super Bowl years of the early '90s. Better than for the Sabres' "No Goal" 1999 team with Hasek as "the Dominator." Better than the team's glory days of the mid -'70s.

And Miller's role in this emerging civic drama is clear.

Basic, incontrovertible hockey wisdom says success often depends on the goalie playing well - particularly in the deep stages of the playoffs. Without that, teams are at a huge disadvantage, at the very least.

Those close to him know no one puts more pressure on Miller than Miller. So why, they ask, make it worse? He's just one player on a rich, deep team. Briere. Campbell. Afinogenov. They're important, too. And the Sabres have Martin Biron, who could probably be a starting goaltender for most other NHL teams.

Fans could argue that the Sabres lost Game 7 in the semi-finals to Carolina last year because of injured defensemen, not goaltending. And asking how important his first-team goalie is to that Buffalo sports dream gets a surefire scowl from Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff.

Don't be fooled: The best shot the Sabres have to get the goaltending that will allow this team to do what no other major Buffalo sports team has ever done rests with Miller. He's the thoroughbred; he's the one with the growth curve.

Miller, still only 26, is nothing if not self-aware, so the "unique opportunity" phrase he comes up with while eating in a corner of a downtown restaurant nicely expresses all those moving parts swirling outside and inside Miller's world. And he seems less freaked about the situation than those around him.

"Yes, it's a challenge," he says when asked about the pressure. "If you start to feel overwhelmed or over your head, you've got to look in the mirror and say, 'It's your own damn fault. You wanted to go out and do it. So live up to it.' "

That's key, because the big concern with Miller has never been his ability.

It's his temperament. It's his head.

Fair or not, a Miller signature moment occurred three years ago, while he was still trying to prove he belonged in the NHL. Miller gave up five goals in the final period against Detroit, his hometown team. He faced reporters with a trembling lip, his voice cracking, his eyes welling up. He stormed off and threw a roll of athletic tape across the room. Miller hid in the locker room, then slipped out and walked the long way around the arena ice to avoid the remaining reporter.

"Mr. Serious." That's what Miller's family used to call him. A "deep thinker" is how his longtime personal goalie coach puts it. Dean Miller remembers when his son was a baby. "We'd go to poke him in the ribs like every other kid, get him to giggle, and he'd look at you with a question in his eyes. 'What was that for?' "

Miller knows what everyone knows: He's an intense guy. Hey, anyone who listens to his celebrity iTunes playlist gets a feel for this. Consider one of his top songs: "The Kill," a marvelous and driving cut by 30 Seconds to Mars. "I like the intensity of the band," he says.

He's always had an edge to his personality. Those around him have said he needed to develop a better attitude for coping with a goalie's inevitable failures. And Miller is the first to acknowledge it has been a struggle.

"I had the tendency to get emotional and put things on my shoulders and get down on myself," he says. "I analyzed everything. I was putting so much into one game, putting so much into one shot, I ended up outthinking myself. Getting down on myself. Getting ahead of myself."

Miller insists he's learned how to lighten up. "It's about being positive with your energy," he says. The turning point to the mental side of his game came when he started working with a sports psychologist. Her other clients: acrobatic skiers and athletes who, if they make a mistake, get hurt. Miller has been with her for years and e-mails her several times a week.

That's good news for any Sabres fan concerned about Miller's fragile psyche. A member of Michigan's first family of hockey, Ryan Miller emerged from the womb as an NHL goalie; that's what his father says. But Miller's basically shy, and his star power probably shines brighter than anyone else's in Western New York right now. Nothing he did to groom himself for the NHL prepared him for this.

"It was like going places with Jesus," says Sabres center Paul Gaustad, Miller's roommate last year. Gaustad says it as more of a joke, kidding Miller about the time some kid approached them last year and blurted it out: Miller looked like Jesus. But given Miller's recognizable face, his cinemascope eyes that can flash from kind to fierce, and the advanced beard he had in the playoffs, it wasn't that far off. And that was last year.

While the Sabres make their way through what, blips and all, looks like a breakthrough season, Miller still gets treated like a savior.

Amanda Schultz, a waitress at Pearl Street Grill where Miller ate that late autumn lunch, took one look and called her mother, Patricia.

"Mom, guess who is here," she said on the phone. "God is here."

Before Miller had finished his pot roast, mother and daughter appeared at his table, politely but firmly asking if he would sign Amanda's No. 30 jersey.

So there's pressure. Endure a grueling season that, hopefully, lasts into June. Realize no one, most of all yourself, will be satisfied with anything less than total victory.

There's drama inside Ryan Miller's head. And the way it turns out this spring is important to all Western New Yorkers waiting ... waiting for glory.

How you settle the tension in your psyche is your private problem. Whether Ryan Miller can tame those inner conflicts is a matter of public concern.

That's Miller's mission. To practice those thoughtful aphorisms. To forgive himself. To settle his soul.

The fabric of the city changes the night of a Sabres home game. Traffic backs up well north on Delaware and Elmwood. There's a buzz in restaurants and bars. People are making plans around a sporting event again.

On Friday, Nov. 17, the arena's usual sellout crowd watches the Sabres beat the Penguins, 4-2, making the Sabres 16-2 with 33 points, three more than any team in the league. Goalie Marty Biron has his best game in weeks.

Miller sits on the bench. He had been vital to the Sabres season-starting 10-game winning streak with a 8-0-1 record. He was the October NHL player of the month and a guest on Jim Rome's national radio show. But on Nov. 9, Miller strained a muscle and missed more than a week of the schedule.

"I'm checking in to make sure everything is cool," Dean Miller, Ryan's father, said by phone as he drove from East Lansing, Mich., to Buffalo a few days before the Penguins game. The Millers had meetings in Buffalo to set up their Steadfast Foundation to benefit children with cancer (there's a Catwalk for Charity fund-raiser Feb. 13 at Ani DiFranco's Church at Delaware and Tupper). Dean often visits both sons playing professional hockey. But Ryan's injury made it a good week for a trip.

So far, Miller had lived up to his lunchtime aspirations of being positive with his intensity. Miller had told a News reporter he had been "a little disappointed" because he thought the injury wasn't healing quickly. But he was feeling better.

A few days before the Penguins game, a voicemail message arrived at The News. It was that distinctive voice, one that mixes the disembodied mood of Enya with the dry humor of "Wayne's World."

"It's Ryan Miller, heh-heh. I'm feeling fine, man. Things happen. I broke my thumb last year, and the one thought I had is that great athletes come back from injuries even better.

"I'm plenty grumpy about missing hockey games. So I'm ready to get on the ice. You just have to make it work."

When Dean Miller arrived in Buffalo, not much was said about the injury. By the Penguins game, Miller was participating in pregame drills, and Dean noticed his son seemed anxious. He kept bouncing around to the music. At the end of the drill, when all the players shoot at once, Ryan stopped them all. Dean Miller knew then his son was ready.

After the game, Miller sits adjacent to Biron's cubicle in the locker room. While reporters crowd around Biron, Miller changes quietly. Someone asks him if he's ready to come back.

"It's up to Lindy," Miller says.

In a few minutes he meets his father in the hallway; they walk toward the security entrance where family and fans wait for the team. Sabres top brass B. Thomas Golisano and Larry Quinn are laughing in one corner. Reporters with familiar faces and names add to the mix. And then they come out: Sabres looking like they stepped off a J. Crew ad walk by with an easy grace and turn all heads. The young, glamorous, still genuine Sabres greet their fans. Briere. Afinogenov. Gaustad ...

Then comes Miller. He leaves his father's side and walks to the small crowd of fans. He signs sticks, programs, shirts. And when he's done there, he looks for others with a smile on his face. Miller is taking it all in, giving it back.

The Sabres start drifting off, and Miller comes back to find his father. The team leaves for Ottawa that night. But Ryan needs to do something before that.

"I want to spend time with my Dad," he says.

The two find Miller's Yukon Denali in the parking garage. Ryan's sister, Brynne, had sent him a "Nacho Libre" mask. And Ryan had bought blue jeans for Brynne's birthday. He called his sister before taking his father to his car, remembering to ask about her volleyball tryouts.

How about Miller? He's the best goalie in the league." - Jack Myers of West Seneca, talking to a fellow runner in the Buffalo Convention Center immediately following the Nov. 23 Turkey Trot.

Since coming back from his injury, Miller has been spectacular, and human. He was magnificent in the Sabres electrifying 7-2 win Nov. 20 against Tampa Bay. Later that week, Montreal beat him on a quick wrist shot with one second left in sudden death overtime. Miller's first reaction: "Expletives."

The Sabres left to play the Rangers the same night. Miller's delayed reaction to giving up his last-second goal: Try to have fun in New York. Dinner in Soho. The lights on the outside of stores. It's the holiday season in the Big Apple, and Miller loves Christmas. It worked. The Sabres won 3-2 in overtime as Miller outdueled the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.

On Dec. 2, Miller was pulled after giving up three goals in the first eight minutes against the Washington Capitals, who beat the Sabres 4-1. Three days later, the Sabres played Tampa Bay. Miller gave up a goal on the second shot. He stopped 28 more, and the Sabres won 4-1.

"I didn't start thinking too much," Miller said after the Tampa Bay game. "We had to bounce back after a tough loss. And it takes a lot of discipline to do that. I was able to stay focused even when they got an early goal. If I did something good, I didn't think about it too long. If I did something bad, I let that go as well."

By mid-December, Miller had more All-Star votes than any other goaltender, and was second among players in the Eastern Conference. His save percentage and goals-against average were not in the top 10 among NHL goalies. But his 14-2-2 record was tied for second.

Just like he had the year before, Miller was establishing himself as a winner.

Worth noting: As of today, Jan. 7, 40 games remain in the Sabres season. Then come the playoffs, four rounds if the team makes it to the finals. The pressure and expectations increase with every round.

Again, Miller knows. He's the first to admit those internal conflicts that have plagued him do not go away.

"It's tough to break old habits," he says. "If they're there, they're going to be worked out so it's not going to be a factor for this hockey club."

Miller has cultivated tools for the long haul. He still battles those bad impulses. I don't want to screw up. I don't want to let my teammates down. Those thoughts can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says. Instead, Miller is positive. I'm going to have a good game today, he tells himself. What do I need to do to make it happen? He's honed these self-diagnostics during his ritual of sitting alone on the Sabres bench and staring quietly at the ice a few minutes before the team warm-up.

"It's taken a lot of work," Miller says. "What I said about being mentally sound, I wasn't for awhile."

The watch on Miller's psyche extends off the ice, as well. Does he get too high or too low after one game? Is he studying his play, but not obsessing ? Is he taking care of himself physically, but still around the people that help him he relax?

It all comes down to harnessing that famous Miller intensity to bring the best game he can. Keep an eye on him. Support and encourage him. Because if that continues, chances of that silver Stanley Cup dream get better and better.

"I want to hold myself accountable so I can be a leader on this team," he says.

And no one understands what that championship means better than Miller. Redemption. Vindication. Buffalo teams don't always crack when it counts. The sports team that has captured your heart could prevail. It would be nothing less than Buffalo sports fan heaven.

"I can't even imagine what winning the Stanley Cup is like," Miller says. "It's like having kids. You don't know how it feels until it happens."

Charles Anzalone is editor of First Sunday.

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