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Ryan Miller is still making the Spartan Nation proud!

By Eric Fish

           It’s Saturday night on May 13, 2006. Ryan Miller is sliding back and fourth through the goal crease in the home rink of the Ottawa Senators where the score is tied 2-2, but the series is tilted in favor of Miller’s Buffalo Sabres, three games to one.

           For the third time in the series, the game is headed to overtime. Every fan packing the arena is on its feet in an attempt to rally the Senators back from an overwhelming series deficit. Some have even begun echoing taunts of “Mil-ler, Mil-ler” to try to rattle the 26-year old.

           Miller stood hunched over at the waist in his goal crease and braced for overtime’s opening face off at center ice.

           Flashback to 1999 and beyond:
           It’s a completely different method of drafting players in the hockey world.

           Unlike in the basketball and football drafts, where the players are selected following individual accomplishments in college, hockey players are drafted to NHL teams sometimes before they even play a year of college puck.

           The players are drafted solely on potential either from the college or junior leagues. Every now and then an NHL general manager will stumble on a gem that has the skill to star at the top level, but often times the draftees spend their entire careers in the minor league system without ever skating in an NHL game.

           Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier has to be smiling like crazy for the selection the organization made in the fifth round, 138th overall, in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.

           Realizing that Dominik Hasek – Buffalo’s then all-star and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender - wasn’t going to play forever, the Sabres chose their future replacement in Ryan Miller.

           Miller – a six-foot-three, East Lansing native who hadn’t even played a season yet at Michigan State University – sure didn’t leave the Buffalo organization wondering if he was going to be a top prospect for very long.

           In his debut year donning the Green and White, Miller awed fans and was awarded the CCHA Goaltender of the Year Award.

           Miller’s sophomore year of 2000-01 was one he will never forget. He collected the CCHA Tournament MVP Award, Goaltender of the Year Award, Player of the Year Award and was named a league first-team all-star. Aside from that, Miller won college hockey’s ultimate prize, the Hobey Baker Award which is awarded to college hockey’s best player.

           Miller also led the NCAA in wins with 31, goals-against average at 1.31, save percentage at .950, and shutouts with 10.

           The Buffalo Sabres monitored their prospect’s success with open eyes and mouth-to-mouth smiles. Here was a fifth-round draft pick winning the Hobey Backer Award as only a sophomore.

           Miller continued to rack up success his junior year as a Spartan. For the third consecutive year, he won the CCHA Goaltender of the Year Award and for the second straight year he took home the league’s player of the year award as well as a berth on the league’s first all-star team.

           Perhaps Miller’s most incredible accomplishment while at MSU, however, was breaking the NCAA record for shutouts. In only three years as a Spartan, Miller now holds the all-time record for shutouts in a college career with 26.

           With nothing left to prove at the collegiate level, Miller signed with the Sabres prior to his senior year at MSU and packed his bags for Buffalo’s AHL minor league affiliate in Rochester, New York.

           He spent the majority of his first professional season playing for the Americans, but did play 15 games in the NHL for the rebuilding Sabres.

           Miller’s 2003-04 campaign was similar to his 2002-03 one – get comfortable in net and take your game to the next level.

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           In the lockout NHL season of 2004-05, Miller reached that comfort level that Buffalo was waiting for with the Americans and recorded 41 wins as well as winning the Baz Bastian Memorial Trophy for the AHL’s top goaltender. He was also selected to the AHL’s first team all-star squad.

           The Sabres organization knew that when the NHL reopened its doors, they would have a new goaltender vying for the starting job.

           Scouts around the hockey world began to take notice, saying that Miller “had the potential to dominate.”

           Like any rookie goaltender in the NHL, Miller had his ups and downs at the beginning. He split time with fellow goaltender Martin Biron early on, but seemed to move into the starting position after a month surpassed.

           Miller suffered a broken thumb in November and missed nearly a month of action, but returned in December and retook his starting job.

           Unfortunately, Miller’s above-average mid-season numbers were overlooked when the United States selected its 2006 Olympic roster and Miller stayed at home and watched while Philadelphia’s Robert Esche, Tampa Bay’s John Graham, and the New York Islanders’ Rick DiPietro represented American goaltenders over in Italy.

           It seemed only fitting that Miller would cap off a terrific rookie season in the NHL the same year his college alma-mater won the CCHA Championship under the leadership of his younger brother, Drew.

           Now it was time to embark on his first run at the Stanley Cup. Miller’s 2.60 goals-against average and .914 save percentage during the regular season had spurred the underdog Sabres into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

           The Sabres met the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round and did away with them in six games. The series matched Olympic-snub Miller against Olympic-selection Esche. Miller outplayed his counterpart in the series and Buffalo fans weren’t shy about voicing their opinions on Miller’s Olympic absence by ridiculing Esche with “Miller’s better!” chants.

           Next up: Ottawa.

           Back to last Saturday night:
           Looks of concern flooded the faces of the away team when Jay McKee was whistled for a penalty 1:44 into overtime, giving Ottawa the power-play.

           Just over a minute after Buffalo began playing shorthanded, Jason Prominville displayed incredible individual effort in a penalty-killing role and scored the game-winner to send Buffalo to the Eastern Conference Finals.

           Miller made 34 saves on the night and was named the No. 1 star of the game. If there was an award for No. 1 star of the series, he would have won that too.

           Now Miller is about to embark on the next step in his young NHL career – a Stanley Cup. The East Lansing native has won everywhere he’s played. He’s taken home the Hobey Baker and the Baz Bastien. If not this season, it won’t be long before he takes aim at a Conn Smythe Trophy – awarded to the MVP of the playoffs – and can be seen on television sets across North America lifting that coveted silver Stanley Cup above his head.

           But no matter what happens this year or next year, Buffalo is thanking its lucky starts and its scouts for the best selection the franchise has drafted in a long time back in the fifth round of the 1999 draft.

           They got their goaltender in Buffalo and Ryan Miller’s not going anywhere anytime soon but up in terms of excellence.