In a scoreless game during a tight playoff series, the options are few but clear. "You're just stuck," the Buffalo Sabres goalie said. "You either take it off the head or you surrender a goal." Miller stopped both first-period drives and 18 other New York shots Monday night as the Sabres beat the Islanders 3-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round Eastern Conference series.
After two games where most of the offence came from the defence, Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere and Adam Mair all scored in the second period for the Sabres. Buffalo, which led the NHL with 308 goals, scored six while splitting the first two games on home ice.
Chris Drury, who assisted on Mair's goal, scored twice in the series-opening victory for the only goals by Buffalo forwards. That changed when the Sabres scored three times in a span of 7:39.
"We have depth of scoring throughout our lines that have kept teams a little bit on their heels," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We can get rolling and it can come from any line at any time."
Trent Hunter and Ryan Smyth answered in the second period in front of a towel-waving, sellout crowd that included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. It wasn't enough, despite 32 saves by Rick DiPietro in his first home game in three weeks following post-concussion syndrome.
When Randy Robitaille was whistled for tripping with 1:34 left, the white towels stopped waving and came flying down along with several beverages that left soda-coloured stains on the ice.
"Our fans were pretty upset, they just didn't throw stuff the other night," Ruff said.
Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday on Long Island. Game 5 is back in Buffalo on Friday.
Miller recovered from his early beanings on shots by Andy Hilbert and Arron Asham that staggered him and held on for his 13th NHL playoff victory. Play was stopped quickly after each shot rattled off Miller's mask, as the officials sought to protect him.
"When you take them in the head, you don't feel too good," he said.
After a lacklustre first in which Buffalo was outshot 10-9, the speedy Sabres quickly took the play to the Islanders in the second. With constant pressure and long-term puck possession in the New York zone, Mair made it pay off at 5:17.
"We don't really care who scores. We're just focused on winning the game," said Mair, who scored only twice in the regular season.
Hunter got knocked off the puck on the offensive end, and defenceman Henrik Tallinder rushed back up ice. He gave the puck to Drury, who crouched to make a precision cross-ice pass from above the left circle to Mair. He easily steered the puck in as he raced toward the left post.
By then, Buffalo had a 4-0 shots advantage in the period. New York wouldn't record a drive until Richard Zednik's shot after 6:03 elapsed.
Vanek, who scored a team-high 43 goals for Buffalo this year, had to sweat out a video replay before being credited with a goal at 8:38. He curled around from behind the net and jammed the puck at the left post as DiPietro tried to keep his skate in the way.
The goal light never came on, and a lengthy video review ensued. Fans who had chanted "No goal! No goal!" changed their pleas to groans when the goal was awarded.
"All our camera angles, it was inconclusive unless the National Hockey League has a different angle we didn't see," Islanders coach Ted Nolan said.
Miller shook off a tough first and made eight saves in the second. He faced only one puck in the third as Buffalo held a 17-1 shots advantage and protected the one-goal lead.
"We're very disappointed," Smyth said. "We had some ample opportunities on the power play.
"We have the personnel here for it. We have to get back to basics and get the puck to the net."
Miller was beaten by Hunter 1:14 after Vanek's goal, snapping New York's home playoff scoreless streak at 187 minutes four seconds dating to Adrian Aucoin's goal in Game 4 against Ottawa exactly four years earlier.
Penalties did in the Islanders with just over eight minutes left in the period when Tom Poti was called for a double high-sticking penalty at the same time Marc-Andre Bergeron was whistled for slashing.
That gave Buffalo a 5-on-3 advantage and put two of the Islanders' six defencemen in the penalty box.
It became too much to overcome.
Tim Connolly's pass in front was blocked by New York's Brendan Witt, but Briere found the loose puck to DiPietro's right and lifted a shot under the crossbar to make it 3-1 with 7:04 left in the period.
It appeared the Sabres would carry a two-goal lead into the third, but Smyth scored with only eight seconds left to cut New York's deficit to 3-2.
Notes: A moment of silence was held for the victims of the shooting at Virginia Tech earlier in the day. ... New York was shut out twice at home by Tampa Bay in 2004, the last time the Islanders qualified for the postseason. ... Ruff is 11-3 in first road games of series as Sabres coach. ... Islanders captain Alexei Yashin, who played a team-low seven minutes in Game 2, was relegated to the fourth line and power-play specialist. ... The Islanders are 1-for-11 on the power play.