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Hairdo aside, Miller raises his game

In case you didn't notice, Ryan Miller came back from the brief Christmas break with a new haircut. He visited his aunt during the holiday, and she grabbed the scissors and made him look, well, slightly less scraggly. He shrugged his shoulders when asked about his new do Thursday, suggested he needed a change.

Miller doesn't care if he looks like Cousin It, so long as his game doesn't have a hair out of place. His frustration the other night against Washington was largely overlooked in a blowout victory, especially with Daniel Briere getting even with Alexander Ovechkin. Truth was, Miller was none too thrilled with his performance.

Chris Clarke scored shorthanded. Miller allowed Ovechkin to beat him when he and everybody else in the building knew the Caps winger was going high glove side. The Sabres won, 6-3, but there was a sense Miller wouldn't have been satisfied had he allowed the same three goals and they won, 15-3.

Predictably, he wasn't overly ecstatic Thursday night after allowing a bad goal with 1:09 remaining in a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. It wasn't so much the shutout he lost that left him angry as it was Craig Adams' snapper that squirted under his arm, a shot Miller could have stopped blindfolded.

"It was more the goal," Miller said. "There's going to be opportunities in a game where we're going to need a save there. I'm holding myself to a higher standard than most people would. They probably thought it was a good game, and I thought it was, too, but I have to eliminate that stuff."

It was vintage Miller, whose standard has been perfection since he first stepped into the NHL. His desire to become one of the NHL's elite goalies pushes him to work tirelessly in his craft. Goaltending coach Jim Corsi says Miller has an acute sense of where he wants to go and how to get there. Miller doesn't just work hard. He works smart.

Give him extra incentive, push him to the edge, and that's when he's at his best. That's what the Hurricanes provided Thursday night, a challenge. Nobody needs to be reminded they beat the Sabres in the conference finals last season. Buffalo hasn't lost to Carolina since Game Seven and put the finishing touches on a season sweep Thursday.

It started in the first period, when Miller rescued a team that took a 20-minute power nap after the opening faceoff. Buffalo was listless in producing one shot in the first while leaving Miller hanging. He stopped all 10 shots he faced. He stoned Ray Whitney from just outside the crease, made another terrific save later on Justin Williams.

We'd be talking about an entirely different outcome had Miller been anything less than spectacular. He allowed the Sabres to get their legs under them, and they responded with three goals in the second period. The Sabres improved their record this season to 11-1-2 against teams currently in first or second place in their division.

Incentive? Carolina coach Peter Laviolette was one of the geniuses who decided to leave Miller off the Team USA roster before the Americans were humiliated in the Olympics.

Instead, he took Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame, giving him three mediocre goalies rather than one great one.

Laviolette could only watch Thursday while Miller outplayed Grahame, average as usual.

Miller's focus for the next three-plus months will be building his game toward 16 playoff victories, which would give the Sabres the Stanley Cup.

There's no telling how long he'll grow his hair between now and now, but if this keeps up his playoff beard could look like something out of ZZ Top.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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