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Goalie Miller laments one that got away

Ryan Miller wasn't sure how long he would need to get over this one. He already had more than 58 minutes of game action, 2 1/2 hours of actual time, to brood over the first goal. By the looks of things, the Sabres franchise goalie wasn't cooling off before reaching the Peace Bridge.

The game can be frustrating and unforgiving at times, especially when the stakes are raised as the regular season nears the end and a playoff spot is up for grabs. Miller knew as much when he took his place before the media, the numerous great saves he made Tuesday mostly overlooked when stacked against the first goal of the game.

Dion Phaneuf's slapper is heavier than "Saving Private Ryan," but when coming from the blue line in the first two minutes of the game against a Vezina Trophy winner it's nothing short of routine, an extension of the Leafs' warmup. Miller raised his glove hand and whiffed as Phaneuf's shot found the top corner.

Big goal? Not really under the circumstances. But little plays get magnified at this time of year and even more in the postseason. The Sabres don't have much room for mistakes like the one Miller made, or poor performances like the one his teammates submitted, in a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I had a chance to set the tone on my end and didn't do it," Miller said. "It just kind of went from there."

What he meant, of course, was that it went downhill from there. The Sabres were out of sorts for most of the night. They have been playing at maximum capacity for the better part of three months, and they can't afford to bring much less. Check the standings now, and they have a three-point lead for the final playoff spot with six games remaining.

The Sabres have been a source of entertainment and excitement, offering hope for a season when most of it seemed lost. Don't get caught up in the euphoria, however. The Sabres have had playoff talent all year, regardless of the standings. They also could be out of the playoffs after one round if they rely on talent alone, assuming they get there.

Understand, this one doesn't fall solely on Miller by any stretch. He made several great saves while his teammates were giving the puck away. The goal he allowed to Phaneuf was merely indicative of what followed and the lack of focus they showed given how far they had come and the opportunity before them against an inferior team.

"We had some big turnovers, just individual turnovers by different players," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We didn't do a very good job of taking care of the puck."

Buffalo hardly looked like a team looking to clinch a playoff spot in the final seven games and possibly ascend to seventh, maybe even sixth. Instead, the Sabres played more like the team that had struggled during the first half of the season. Their defense was loose. They surrendered too many odd-man rushes. Their forwards failed to convert. They took silly penalties. Their goaltending wasn't good enough.

Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Weber were brutal along the blue line. Morrisonn watched the third period from the bench after getting caught watching the game too much in the first two periods. Weber bumped into goaltender James Reimer in the final two minutes of regulation, which led to this question: What was he doing there?

Regardless, today is a new day. The Rangers are coming to town tonight for another big game while Carolina plays at home against Montreal. The Sabres have lost only four games in regulation since Feb. 20. They're headed for the playoffs barring some catastrophic collapse.

"It's a tough one to swallow," winger Drew Stafford said. "It's a tough one, but we have to get ready for [tonight] because that one is just as big, if not bigger."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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