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Miller enjoys local ties to NCAA title

Ryan Miller hunkered down with some room service at the hotel and watched in amazement. The Buffalo Sabres goaltender was transfixed by what he saw: two South Buffalo kids and another from West Seneca helped his alma mater win the NCAA hockey title.

"It was unbelievable," Miller said of Michigan State's dramatic 3-1 victory over Boston College in Saturday night's national championship game. "I'm just really happy for them, really proud of them."

The scene's timing couldn't have been better for Miller. The Sabres are about to begin their own quest for a championship.

"It's inspiring to see them have that kind of [moment]," Miller said. "It was pretty cool to watch them pile out and jump around on the ice. It's the program I played for and kids I know."

Local boys Tim Kennedy, Chris Mueller and Mike Ratchuk helped the Spartans earn their first national title in 21 years. Kennedy scored the tying goal and made a slick play to set up the winner with 18.9 seconds left. Mueller tacked on the empty netter.

"The Buffalo boys really had a great game," Miller said. "The connection is great. They're proud to be from Buffalo. I'm proud to be playing here. The Buffalo thing means a lot. We're all in the same family and we're all excited for what they've accomplished."

What a day it was for Miller. Saturday afternoon he had made 26 saves in his final regular-season start to shut out the Washington Capitals in a game that clinched the Presidents' Trophy for the Sabres.

Miller, who won the Hobey Baker Award at Michigan State in 2001, is considered Spartan hockey royalty. His little brother, Drew Miller, was the captain last season and left to join the Anaheim Ducks organization. Cousins Kip, Kevin and Kelly Miller all played there on their way to the NHL.

Before the game, Miller sent a motivational text message to Mueller. The All-Star goalie fired off another one after the final horn.

"I sent one to Mueller that said" something defiantly congratulatory but unprintable, Miller said. "He sent one back that said, 'You better go win one for Buffalo now.' "

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Sabres coach Lindy Ruff made a few lineup changes for Sunday afternoon's regular-season finale, a 4-3 loss to Martin Biron and the Philadelphia Flyers in Wachovia Center. Ruff gave backup goalie Ty Conklin another start and both healthy scratches from Saturday's game were back onto the ice.

Veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen was given the day off, allowing Nathan Paetsch to skate. Since enforcers aren't utilized much in the playoffs, Andrew Peters took what could be his last spin of the season. He replaced Daniel Paille on the fourth line.

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Tim Connolly centered the fourth line again. After scoring a goal Saturday in his first game in 11 months, he nearly had another with 1:50 left in the second period. He was on the doorstep with a good look, but Biron got a piece of the puck with the palm of his blocker hand and sent Connolly's shot off the right post.

"That one I would really like to have back," Connolly said. "It was on my backhand and I just tried to deflect it into the open net. I just got a little too much on it. I'm going to be thinking about that one until the first shift of my next game."

Connolly skated for 13:07, including 2:44 of power-play time but just eight seconds short-handed. He had zero shots and won four of his seven faceoffs. He went over the boards as the sixth attacker when Ruff pulled Conklin in the final minute.

Ruff was pleased he was able to insert Connolly in a pair of low-pressure, regular-season games.

"We thought it was very important," Ruff said. "It would have been a tough experiment just to drop him in and take a healthy player out for a playoff game and then wonder how he's going to play. He can be an important piece for us."

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Five Sabres played all 82 games, including a couple of surprises.

Rugged fourth-line forward Adam Mair went the duration after skating only 40 games last season because of a concussion and groin injuries. Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, who averaged 64 games over the past four seasons, didn't miss a game for the first time in his career. The others to last from start to finish were forwards Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and defenseman Brian Campbell.

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Briere was kept off the scoresheet for a third straight game -- the first time that's happened since a four-game point slump into early December -- and finished with a team-high 63 assists and 95 points.

Vanek led the Sabres with 43 goals and 237 shots. He paced the NHL with his plus-47 rating.

Co-captain Chris Drury had 17 power-play goals, two more than Vanek, and three short-handed goals to take those categories. Drury also had a career-high nine winners.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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