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Miller steps up for Sabres with time winding down

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Buffalo Sabres are suddenly trying to make a late playoff push and Ryan Miller is getting hot. Those two facts pretty much go hand in hand.

Miller made 37 saves through regulation and overtime and stopped all three shootout attempts Sunday as the Sabres pulled out a 3-2 win over New Jersey, their third straight. Miller will almost certainly be in goal again tonight when the Sabres meet the skidding Winnipeg Jets in MTS Centre and try to win four in a row for the first time since a five-game run 13 months ago.

The backdrop to this streak, however, is these could be Miller’s last games in Buffalo. There were plenty of rumors about him at the trade deadline and speculation is rife the Sabres are looking to unload him during the offseason, likely before the NHL Draft June 30 in Newark, N.J.

That speculation was only heightened when one of the pieces that came back from Minnesota for Jason Pominville was a prospect goalie, 23-year-old Matt Hackett.

While Miller was stoning the Devils on Sunday, Hackett was doing likewise in his debut for Rochester against Albany with almost similar numbers – 39 saves, all three in a shootout and a 3-2 win.

“You try to be professional and prepared,” Miller said over the weekend. “What I was trying to do was put everything aside. Everything else can wait. Just try and be right here, right now. Play some hockey and see how it goes.

“You just put it away, compartmentalize it and address it later. In this case there’s not much to address until the end of the season.”

Last year, Miller was visibly angry on an off day in Anaheim the day after close friend Paul Gaustad was traded to Nashville. But Miller channeled the anger into back-to-back shutouts in Anaheim and San Jose to start the Sabres on an 11-2-2 binge that nearly produced a playoff berth.

“I just want to show up and play good hockey,” Miller said. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. It parallels the season last year where things weren’t going well early and you try to get things going. I learned from that experience from Paul. It is what it is. I try not to be as vocal about it. It’s part of the business.”

Miller has stopped 91 of 96 shots in the last three games, posting a .948 save percentage and 1.62 goals-against average as the Sabres have sneaked within four points of the final playoff spot.

Prior to this stretch, Miller was in a 2-5-4 slump, with ugly numbers of 3.01 and .902. With backup Jhonas Enroth playing well and giving Miller some rest, the Buffalo starter seems to be rejuvenated down the stretch.

“He’s been pretty solid for us here this last stretch,” said interim coach Ron Rolston. “Like Jhonas is doing, he’s starting to feel confident in going out and making a difference for us.”

Miller has been very good all season in 5-on-5 play, posting a .930 save percentage – actually ahead of the mark of .928 he posted during his Vezina Trophy season three years ago. He has suffered, as has the team as a whole, in special teams situations, posting an .859 save percentage while the Sabres are short-handed and .840 when they have the power play; he’s been burned for four short-handed goals.

Miller got plenty of help Sunday. The Sabres played a physical brand of hockey with 44 hits and defenseman Mike Weber, their strongest blue-liner in recent games, had another monster outing with eight hits and seven blocked shots in 21 minutes.

“We had some ups and downs in the game obviously,” said Steve Ott. “Some young mistakes and all of us are guilty of mistakes too, but Millsy was phenomenal again for us. When we have a goaltender like that backstopping us, it makes everybody a little more confident on the ice.”

The Sabres were off Monday and flew here to prepare for tonight’s game.

Winnipeg has spent much of the season in first in the weak Southeast Division and thus third in the Eastern Conference. It earned a 2-1 win in Buffalo on Feb. 19 that turned into Lindy Ruff’s final game as coach.

But the Jets have fallen on hard times and are only two points ahead of the Sabres, with Buffalo owning a game in hand. Winnipeg is just 9-9-0 at home, where it should have a huge advantage in the NHL’s smallest building and in front of some of its most passionate fans.

The Jets snapped a five-game losing streak with Saturday’s 4-1 win over Philadelphia here but had lost seven of nine prior to that game. The slump started with home losses to Washington on back-to-back nights in which Winnipeg was outscored, 10-1, catapulting the Caps back into the race and two points ahead of the Jets atop the Southeast Division.