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Miller makes a statement Goalie's big night bolsters hot Sabres

Ryan Miller has a question for USA Hockey, and he doesn't need to pick up a cell phone to ask it.

Can you hear me now?

The Buffalo Sabres goalie was magnificent Friday night in a 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers in front of an HSBC Arena sellout crowd of 18,690.
Co-captain Chris Drury and rookie Thomas Vanek scored second-period power-play goals, and Maxim Afinogenov and Mike Grier tacked on two more goals in the third to make sure the Sabres closed the calendar year in style -- 18-2 with two shootout losses over their last 22 games.

But Miller was the star. He made 34 saves, including 16 in the second period, and was gunning for the Sabres' first shutout until Thrashers leading scorer Marc Savard scored with 6:06 left.

"He was solid," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Miller. "He saw everything. He was totally under control. He made big saves when we needed big saves. He gave us momentum. He made the saves that picked the bench up. That was a big part of tonight's game.

"He was just looking to make a statement."

Miller has played four games since he came back from his broken right thumb -- a return that happened on the night he learned didn't make the Olympic team -- and has won them all, allowing more than a single goal only once.

He wouldn't have minded a shutout Friday night, but he wasn't complaining.

"I just wanted to win," Miller said. "I'm not going to be picky. It would be nice to get a shutout. They're always bonuses. I've had a lot in my career and in college. They're overrated. Wins are great."

Miller is 5-0 against the three teams with goalies who made the American squad. Now he has thumped the Thrashers, whose general manager is Don Waddell, the man who picked the Team USA roster.

And what seemed like a slammed Olympic door might now be ajar for Miller. Before the Sabres took the ice, projected Team USA starting goalie Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders went down with a knee injury in the first period against the Ottawa Senators.

Miller hasn't been fond of the recent Olympic talk and doesn't want to stir up any controversy over his omission from the team. He has repeatedly said his efforts are concentrated on helping the Sabres win.

Drury, a Team USA forward, said he gets the feeling the Sabres can't lose when Miller's in the crease.

"He always gives off that vibe to me," Drury said. "He's always tough to beat."

Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen made 25 saves, including 13 in the second period. He was playing for the first time since opening night, when he went down with a groin injury after stopping all six shots he faced.

Lehtonen missed 35 games, and must have felt like he still was a bystander after the Sabres managed to send only three pucks to him in the first period.

But the Sabres peppered him right away in the second period thanks to a power play that carried over. Drury, from below the left circle, banked one off Lehtonen's shoulder, and the goalie finally allowed his first goal of the season.

Vanek's highlight-reel goal gave the Sabres a 2-0 lead with 8:29 left in the period. They were on a power play after former teammate Eric Boulton was whistled for charging Miller.

Vanek skated nearly the length of the left boards. Thrashers defenseman Greg de Vries was on his hip. No matter. The slick rookie chipped the puck to himself, turning de Vries inside out at the top of the circle, and bore in on Lehtonen. Vanek made like he was going behind the cage, then quickly went forehand to shoot just inside the post for his fourth goal in five games.

The Sabres scored on two of their first three power plays even though the Thrashers entered the game having killed off 22 straight to tie a team record.

Buffalo snuffed all eight of Atlanta's power plays.

"Their best penalty killer was Miller," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said.

Savard ruined Miller's shutout bid and silenced the exuberant crowd as he scored on a spinning move in the slot that sent Miller on his rear end, where he stared at the Arena rafters in disgust.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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