SOCHI, Russia — This cannot have been easy for Dan Bylsma. Ryan Miller was a national hero four years ago, the main reason the U.S. hockey team came within an overtime of winning the Olympic gold medal for the first time since the Miracle on Ice.
Relegating that sort of player to a backup had to be one of the toughest calls of Bylsma's career. He agonized over it, played coy with the media, waited until the last moment to announce he was going with Jonathan Quick in each of the first two games.
But it was ridiculous to suggest that Bylsma showed a lack of respect by not choosing Miller. Quite the contrary. Bylsma gained a tremendous level of respect for the veteran Sabres' goalie from the moment he began coaching him at Olympic orientation camp last August.
“He's a goaltender, but Ryan has been in a leadership position with our team right from the start in August,” Bylsma said Sunday after the U.S. beat Slovenia, 5-1, to complete a three-game sweep of the preliminary round and earn a bye to Wednesday's quarterfinals.
“He told me it's all about winning,” Bylsma said. “And that's what he has said since we've been in Sochi as well.”
It wasn't easy for Miller, either. He's a proud competitor, and he felt in his heart that, between his MVP performance in Vancouver and his stellar play for the Sabres this season, he had done enough to earn back his starting job with the U.S. team.
But Miller knew he was “on the outside looking in” last summer. So entering the NHL season, his primary objective was simply impressing Bylsma and the USA hockey folks enough to make the roster.
Above all, Miller is a team player. He's always had a profound sense of his responsibility to his teammates, a desire to say and do the right things. He has the qualities of a captain, though goalies are very rarely given that distinction.
So it had to make it a little easier on Bylsma, knowing that regardless of his wounded feelings, Miller would set aside his personal disappointment and do what was best for the team.
On Sunday, Miller played the role of dutiful backup. He made 17 saves to help the U.S. dispatch the overmatched Slovenians and advance to the quarterfinals. He allowed Quick to get a much-needed rest after the physically and emotionally exhausting shootout win over Russia.
“As a competitor you want to play,” Miller said. “But I wanted to give myself an opportunity to make this team, first and foremost, and contribute any way I can. It was nice to contribute tonight and help the team win a game. It's back-to-back games against a team (Slovenia) coming off an emotional high of winning their first game.
“It could have been a situation where we took them lightly, but we were all focused,” Miller said. “That's my contribution, and I think that it's important. I'll be ready if I need to be.”
The U.S. didn't need Miller that often against a Slovenia team that had notched the first win in its Olympic hockey history the day before. In the first period, Miller mainly steered weak, trickling shots to the side of the net for his defensemen.
Phil Kessel scored two highlight goals in the first five minutes, one when he undressed Slovenian defenseman Mitja Robar, putting the puck between Robar's legs; the other when he deflected a pass out of the air and behind 20-year-old goaltender Luca Gracnar.
But the U.S. went into a slumber after the second of Kessler's three goals. Maybe they needed an emotional break after the win over Russia 24 hours before. Miller was there for them, making several key saves during a sloppy stretch of the first and second periods.
“It felt good,” Miller said. “I haven't played in just over a week here, probably 11 or 12 days. So it was good to get back in a game.
These guys play the kind of hockey where it's easy. You just set up for your one situation, your one passing option and the guys are coming back with sticks and tracking and they get the puck back.
“I thought the first period we were getting puck deep and working them really well. It was impressive watching some of these guys play. I like to be busy. I like to be in the game.
“I came over here to contribute,” Miller said. “I told myself, 'This is my chance to contribute and help wrap up this pool and help the guys earn a break'. I did the best I could do.”
Miller came within 17.6 seconds of a shutout. He has the longest active shutout drought among NHL goaltenders — 85 games, dating back to a 3-0 win over Montreal on March 21, 2012.
How much did you want the shutout, I asked him? Miller gave a derisive laugh. Come on, a shutout, after what he's been through?
“I wanted it pretty bad,” he said. “That's just unfortunate there. I looked a little too far left and he hammered it.”
Bylsma described Miller's outing as “solid, steady. He had more than a handful of tough tests and saves,” the Penguins' coach said. “I was disappointed to see the last one go in. It was a one-time shot through the screen. He's ready to step in when he's needed, and he was tonight for our team. He was really strong in that regard.”
Someone asked Bylsma the obligatory question: Who gets the start in the quarterfinals Wednesday?
“I'm not going to tell you that now,” he said.
It would be a shock if he didn't go back to Quick, who played very well in the first two games. Using Miller on the second of back-to-backs was the perfect move, a chance to rest Quick and show deference to Miller.
“It was a prudent thing to do,” Miller said. “In tournament play, you never know what's going to happen. I'm just a tap on the shoulder away any time. That's what I told the coach. Quickie has been really impressive his first two games, especially that shootout situation with the Russians. I thought he was great.
“So if I have to support Quickie, I'll support Quickie.”
Miller then spent about 15 minutes gushing about his American teammates; about Kessel's emergence, about their overall skill, their ability to utilize their speed on the big ice sheet while retaining “a little North American element.”
He was the same Miller we're accustomed to after Sabres' games, a sincere guy, a willing spokesman and leader. When Bylsma chose Quick as his No. 1 goalie, Miller said he was on this team for a reason. The reason is a gold medal. He'll be ready if called upon, a team player to the very end.