Brian Burke serves as the GM of the Leafs and Team USA. Closer to the ice, Ron Wilson is behind the Leafs' bench and will likewise serve as coach of the Americans. At one end of the rink is Ryan Miller, the odds-on favorite to be Team USA's starting goalie. In three meetings this year, Miller has absolutely stifled the Leafs, winning all three while stopping 111 of 115 Toronto shots in the process.
Not that Miller's excellence has been a Leafs-only phenomenon. Hardly. He leads the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage, is tied for first with four shutouts -- one at the expense of the Leafs -- and is tied for third with 20 wins. As he told me coming into the season, "The Olympics are a goal of mine, but mostly I want to play my way into the conversation of the league's elite. I thought I was doing that last year before the injury."
The injury was a high ankle sprain that spoiled the Sabres' playoff chances, as they couldn't win without Miller. That team failure may have made most of us forget the season that he was putting together -- a fourth straight 30-win campaign with career bests in goals against (2.58) and save percentage (.918) . His superb first half of this season is a reminder. The Sabres sit atop the Northeast Division on the strength of Miller's genuine excellence. He worked hard to get back in shape, changing his offseason routine to include more work in the pool than running. Mentally, he has matured as the leader of the Sabres, willing to accept his role as the team's most important player.
In other words, his focus has been singular -- to be the best goalie possible on a nightly basis. That kind of drive is hard to measure, yet, in the results, easy to recognize. Not surprisingly, then, when asked about added incentive when playing the Maple Leafs because of their ties to Team USA decision-makers, Miller is non-committal. He doesn't consciously see it that way. He's just applying himself to the task at hand, doing his part to keep a divisional foe at bay. Miller likewise shrugs off the notion of incentive derived from a 2006 snub when his broken hand prior to the Olympic games clouded the decision-making process.
Fair enough. Motivation, and insight into where it comes from, for an athlete is inexact. That doesn't make it any easier for Wilson and the Leafs. Appropriately, Wilson won't address Miller as an Olympian, especially when his team faces the Sabres, and shakes his head at the notion that his team dwells on Miller's run against them.
"He's a good goalie," Wilson says. "When we've played them, they've been better than us. We need to be better defensively against the Sabres. That's the message. Play a tight game. Don't gamble and give odd man rushes against. That's our approach. It has nothing to do with Ryan Miller."
Really? Sounds to me like a team feeling pressure to score against a nemesis, opening itself up in haste to the point where it is vulnerable to transition turnovers. In that regard, Wilson's emphasis on the defensive side is spot-on. Still, I bet he can't wait to have Miller's presence doing that to the opposition in Vancouver. And in Miller's mind, can you imagine Canada at home playing the USA for gold with Miller at one end and Marty Brodeur -- the benchmark of greatness in Miller's era -- at the other? Talk about drama.
Now that's motivation.