One of Ryan Miller’s best attributes is his ability to read plays. The Sabres goaltender is ultra-literate. He anticipates what’s coming and positions himself accordingly.
He was a little off Tuesday, but getting set wouldn’t have helped anyway against the Florida Panthers. The pucks rarely stayed on their original path as teammates and opponents got their sticks out for net-finding redirects.
The result was a 4-3 loss to the visiting Panthers, who dropped Buffalo to 0-2-2 in its last four games. It was the first time in 18 starts that Miller allowed four or more goals. He put up a 2.07 goals-against average and .941 save percentage between St. Louis’ four-goal showing Nov. 19 and Tuesday’s setback.
“It wasn’t one of my better games,” Miller said in First Niagara Center. “I don’t think it was a very clean game, a little sloppy on my part in a few of those situations. That’s the way it goes over a course of a season.”
The first period in particular was a barrage of deflections, ringing posts and goaltenders shaking their heads before an announced crowd of 17,583. The teams combined for five goals, with Florida striking twice late to take a 3-2 lead. Panthers players tipped in their first two goals and the final one went off the stick of a Buffalo defenseman.
That offset two goals by the Sabres’ Drew Stafford.
“The first period was a little bit of a mess,” Miller said. “I didn’t do myself any favors. I have to find a deflection point and be in better position. I was not in good spots on the first two. The third one is just throw your hands up. There’s not much you can do. He was going completely to the other side of the net.”
Sabres skaters took the blame for letting the shots get to Miller.
“It still comes down to coverage,” captain Steve Ott said. “How the guy gets an open point shot before the tip is a big deal. Shot lanes are a big deal. Prior to that, turnovers are a big deal. ... It’s much more of a bigger picture than just the tip-in goal.”
Florida took just 22 shots, with 12 coming in the first period. Nick Bjugstad’s laser into the corner late in the second enabled the Panthers to withstand Ott’s 100th career goal with 11:24 to play.
“They got guys in shooting lanes and in front of the net,” Stafford said. “It seems like harmless little wrist shots, but when they hit off bodies, hit off sticks, it makes it difficult for our guys to cover in front and for Millsie to see it.”
The Sabres have lost four straight despite an emergence of offense. The NHL’s 30th-ranked shooters have scored 12 goals, but opponents have totaled 16 (including two in shootouts).
Impressive goaltending has kept the Sabres in most games this season.
“We’re never going to point the finger at Ryan and say he was off,” coach Ted Nolan said. “It was just one of those games where the puck had eyes and went in on him.”
Stafford and Ott were the only ones who could solve Tim Thomas, who made 32 saves. The goalie finished with 15 stops in the third period, including seven on Buffalo’s late power plays. It had a four-on-three and five-on-four after Brad Boyes’ high-stick to Henrik Tallinder landed him in the box for four minutes.
“There was lots of time to change the game and the outcome, but it didn’t work out,” center Cody Hodgson said.
For their next game Thursday, the Sabres will once again try to host the Carolina Hurricanes. The teams had their Jan. 7 meeting in Buffalo postponed by the weather.