Ryan Miller is playing some of his best hockey of the season at just the right time. That's good news for the Buffalo Sabres and could be curtains for the slim playoff hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Miller was named the NHL's First Star of the Week Monday after going 3-0 and posting two shutouts. And he'll be in net again tonight, making his seventh straight start as Buffalo meets the Leafs in the Air Canada Centre.
"It's nice this time of year to have a little stretch where you're recognized like that," Miller said after practice Monday in HSBC Arena. "It lines up with the way we've been playing as a team, really paying attention to detail and with good emotion in the game. I guess that's exactly what we need this time of year. A goalie a lot of times can be a difference-maker but is really a reflection of the way the team plays."
The Sabres enter tonight's game with a five-point lead over Carolina for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs are seven points back with just six games left and almost certainly need a regulation win tonight to stay alive.
That won't be easy against Miller. He is 24-10 lifetime against the Leafs with a 2.23 goals-against average and .929 save percentage and four shutouts. The victory and shutout totals are his most against any opponent.
After a stretch of eight starts where Miller didn't post back-to-back wins, he's gone 4-0-1 in his last five with a 1.60 GAA and .944 save percentage.
Miller is 7-3-2 in March and his 2.25 GAA is his best in any month this season.
"I'm feeling better, feeling like I'm in the play a lot more and able to get in the flow of it," Miller said. "It has a lot more to do with attention to detail around me and I can commit to some things. Way earlier in the season, we were hesitant on some plays and that makes me wait for things to unfold and that's a tough position to be in sometimes. Right now I'm trying to dictate the play, force guys to do what they don't want to do."
Miller stopped 83 of 85 shots last week to earn the No. 1 nod over Anaheim's Corey Perry and the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, who posted two shutouts in three games as well but was only 2-0-1. Lundqvist's team leads Buffalo by two points and will play the Sabres here Wednesday night.
Miller is one big reason for the Sabres' 23-10-5 record since Jan. 1, but the play around him has certainly been better in all areas as well.
"He's had a quieter game in my eyes where he's just been able to keep things in front of him," said coach Lindy Ruff. "Inside the games we've played well and there hasn't been games where he's been tested for 20 or 40 minutes.
"There's been pockets of time where the play has been busy and we've asked him to make some big saves. But overall, our game has been advantageous to keeping him in there."
Miller has improved his record to 33-21-8 and is just two wins shy of Vancouver's Roberto Luongo for the league lead. His 220 career wins are just 14 away from matching Dominik Hasek's franchise record of 234.
The Sabres can just about put Carolina away if they keep winning this week before they even get to Raleigh for Sunday night's final meeting of the season. Teams are chasing them but they're looking up to try to push as high as sixth in the conference. They have however, dropped their last two meetings to the Leafs.
"We still have some work to do and it's a team chasing us," Miller said of the Leafs. "It's still playoff time. There's a lot of points to be had and that includes by us."