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Miller earns the affection of his fans

That's no playoff beard on Ryan Miller's face. Look closer and you'll discern the makings of a playoff mustache and wide, triangular sideburns. Throw in some bell bottom pants and Miller would look like some dude from the 1970s.

It's a tribute to the late Rick Martin. Miller said his teammates were so moved by the reunion of former Sabres at the final home game that they decided to honor Martin with his signature facial growth -- a Rico-shave. The 'burns began with Patrick Lalime and spread through the team like wildfire.

That '70s look has inspired a "Mustaches For Martin" campaign among Sabres fans on social media. The players are also raising money through their annual charity beard-a-thon. Miller was a little sheepish about his spotty growth, but he said it'll grow in nicely if the Sabres go on a playoff run.

Buffalo's goalie will have some impressive mutton chops he if keeps playing the way he did Wednesday night, when he made 32 saves in a 1-0 home-ice victory that sent the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series between the Sabres and Flyers back to Philly even at two games apiece.

Miller's performance was reminiscent of another former Sabres great who was recently brought home by new owner Terry Pegula: Dominik Hasek. Considering the circumstances, it might have been the greatest playoff game by a Buffalo goalie since Hasek made 70 saves in a four-overtime, 1-0 win over the Devils in 1994.

OK, it's a far cry from that epic Hasek game. But late in the game, when fans chanted Miller's name after his save on Daniel Briere, it was the most emotional moment between the fans and a Sabre since Miller's first home game after the Olympics in early March of 2010.

After watching Miller lead the U.S. to within an eyelash of a gold medal and become a national hero, Sabres fans felt anything was possible. There was no telling how far a team could go with the "best goalie on the planet" standing in the Buffalo net.

Sentiments quickly changed, however. The Sabres lost in the first round last year. Teams with lesser goalies advanced to the conference finals. The prevailing wisdom on goalies began to change. Suddenly, it appeared you didn't need a great goalie to win the Stanley Cup, after all.

"I would probably disagree with that," defenseman Chris Butler said. "You need a great goalie and you need a good team defense. That sometimes starts with our offense."

Butler makes a good point. It's nice to have an elite goaltender. A great goalie can steal a game, or even a series. Bad goaltending can sink a team at playoff time. But generally, it's the team that complements good goaltending with a sound team defense and balanced, opportunistic offense that makes a Cup run.

Maybe that's why Miller and his coach, Lindy Ruff, tried to downplay the goalie's heroics after Thursday's practice. Miller is the first NHL goalie in seven years to win two 1-0 games in the same series. Clearly, scoring one goal a game isn't the most advisable way to advance in the playoffs.

"We did a great job as a team down the stretch in the season," Ruff said. "If we needed to score four goals, we got four. Offensively, for a couple of months, when we needed to do the job, we went out and did the job. I think that's what a team is all about."

The Sabres didn't need great goaltending to make the playoffs. They were one of the top-scoring teams in the NHL after Christmas. They played aggressively and got balanced scoring. They didn't need Miller to be great. At times, they didn't need him at all. They won games with Jhonas Enroth in goal.

"We know what Ryan does for us," Ruff said. "It speaks for itself. At this time of year, sometimes your goalie wins you games, and sometimes your team wins you games. Ryan gives us a chance every night. Some nights, when some tough ones go in, we'd like to reciprocate."

Even Hasek didn't steal playoff games that often. When Ruff's early teams made playoff runs, they scored on the power play and made life easier. Ruff shouldn't require greatness from Miller to win every night. His offense should allow Miller to be average now and then. The Sabres haven't led by two goals at any point in the series.

Miller knows it, too. He never wavers from his belief that his success is tied to his team. Miller doesn't like to get emotional about his essentially calculating, impassive profession. He's a thinking man's goalie, a perfectionist who looks at himself as the last line of team defense.

At times, Miller can be thin-skinned about public criticism. After Wednesday's game, he said he doesn't care what people think. But he cares deeply. Anyone who has followed Miller for the last six seasons knows he cares.

"I'm trying to stay even," Miller said, "trying to play every game the same way, regular season on through. You realize the importance of some games, but you can't make one game bigger than any other. They all add up. So I'm trying to be as good as I can every night. (Wednesday) night worked out. My decisions wound up being the right ones.

"Next game is going to be a whole new fresh set of options and decisions to be made," he said. "I just want to keep it even and keep it working well with the guys, working our zone well and talking, communicating. It's good teamwork."

When you make the big bucks and play the most vital position, criticism comes with the territory. Miller gets too much of the blame sometimes when the Sabres lose. He is praised too highly at times after victories. Game Four was a reminder that, at his best, he's capable of taking a team and a town on a very long, hairy ride.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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