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Sabres need Miller to win goalie battle

Looking back, it occurs to me that Saturday night's loss to the Islanders bore a striking resemblance to a game the Sabres played in Toronto exactly three weeks earlier.

That night, they also skated out like a bunch of cadavers and allowed the opposition to pepper Ryan Miller with 16 shots in the first period. But this time, Miller was in no position to rip his team for its lackluster effort.

"I was in the same boat," Miller said Sunday before the Sabres flew to Long Island. "I needed to make a better read on the [second Islanders goal]. If they had traffic, maybe I could say I got screened. But I looked the wrong way."

Miller took the blame for misplaying Bruno Gervais' soft wrist shot that made it 2-0. But he took great exception to the notion that he was shaky and uncomfortable in the first period of Game Two.

"I don't know what the hell you guys are talking about," Miller said. "I made a bad read on one shot. And one got kicked in . . . I can take the criticism, but it just seems like everybody is getting impatient because we didn't sweep the Islanders. It's the NHL. It's the playoffs. It's hard.

"We're going to need to play better, too," Miller said. "At the same time, it's not going to be a cakewalk. It's not going to be a Stanley Cup parade in April. It's going to be a hard two months."

We won't be at this for even two weeks if Miller gives up too many soft goals. Sure, it's only one game, one bad goal. It's a team game, as Miller is always quick to remind us, and the Sabres are the superior team. They've been a terrific road team in the playoffs under Lindy Ruff and could ease everyone's angst by winning two on the Island.

But it's 1-1 now, and more of a series than most experts imagined. And whether Miller likes it or not, the goalie battle is a big issue. Goaltending is a huge factor in a Stanley Cup series and always will be. Many a Cup dream has gone up in smoke because one goalie caught fire in the playoffs, or because a favorite's netminder wasn't quite on his game.

The Sabres are the Cup favorites for a reason. The one looming question is whether Miller can play at a consistently high level in the playoffs. He was great at times a year ago in his rookie playoff run. At other times, he was merely average. He was not a difference-maker in the conference finals against Carolina.

Some people feel the Sabres don't need Miller to be great to win the Cup. At times, their offense can make the goaltending seem secondary. But it is rare to win a series if you lose the goaltending battle, and rarer yet to win the Cup.

Call it an overreaction, but when Isles goalie Rick DiPietro outplayed Miller and stole Game Two, he created the first mini-crisis of the postseason. The only way the Islanders can make this a long series is if DiPietro stays hot and Miller doesn't rise to the same level.

Miller has responded before. He was shaky when the Flyers tied last year's first-round series, 2-2, but came home and shut them out. But he's never been in a position like this, with his team favored to win the Cup and the fans expecting perfection every night.

Daniel Briere, who has done very little in the two games, said the Sabres need to play with more urgency. Why it took them two games to reach that conclusion is a mystery. But seeing the opposing goalie stand on his head has a way of grabbing a team's attention.

"Definitely," Briere said. "But we have enough skill and talent in this room. If we get back to our game, it doesn't matter which goaltender they have in there. I believe we can beat any goaltender, even if it's the best in the world."

That might be true. But if the Sabres want to be the big, bad team they think they are, their goalie needs to get back on his game, too.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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