By Stu Hackel
Ryan Miller has played 31 consecutive games for the Sabres and that's a lot for any goalie. In those 31, he's 18-9-3, but has a 2.85 goals-against average and a sub par .909 save percentage. And after Miller surrendered seven goals to the Islanders on Sunday, one naturally wonders if Lindy Ruff, justifiably regarded as one of the game's better coaches, has worn out the star netminder.
Miller's workhorse streak will end tonight, as the Sabres have recalled Jhonas Enroth from Portland in the AHL to face the Canadiens. The 22-year-old Enroth played earlier this season with mixed results while Miller sat out five games due to a hip injury. He won a pair of postgame skills competitions, but his best performance might have been in a 1-0 loss to Penguins on Nov. 10 -- his final game before heading back to Portland. He hasn't exactly been burning up the AHL with his 2.83 GAA (ranked 30th in the league), but his respectable .910 save percentage may be a bit more revealing because he faces nearly 31 shots per outing.
As for Miller, it's been a tough season for the man who won the 2009-10 Vezina Trophy and backstopped the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal game a year ago while earning tournament MVP honors. He is surrendering about a half-goal more per game compared to last season (2.78 vs. 2.22) and his save percentage has dipped from last season's .929. A couple of rest breaks in his last 31 games might have helped. Giving Miller a few more breathers was, at least, the plan at the start of the season. He played in 69 games last season, and if you include his six in the Olympics and six in the playoffs, he surpassed his career high of 76 in 2007-08. He's again on pace for a 68-game regular season.
It seems that Ruff has little faith in backup Patrick Lalime, who has not won a game since last March or started one since Nov. 20. when he allowed this awful winning goal to Adam Hall of the Lightning:
That one must have made Ruff's mustache curl, especially after the one Lalime allowed in another one-goal loss to the Wild last March:
As Jerry Sullivan points out in today's Buffalo News, Lalime is 9-26-5 during his three Sabres seasons. "It's irresponsible for management to show such disregard for the backup goalie position. Ruff and (GM Darcy) Regier are both at fault in the situation."
Perhaps, but let's spread some of that blame, maybe even the lion's share, to outgoing owner Tom Golisano, who held the purse strings and held them tightly. Lalime signed with the Sabres three years ago (a two-year deal at $1 million per season) to give Miller more time off and he came back for this season at the bargain basement price of $600,000. You get what you pay for.
There are signs that a heavy workload and bad outings are getting to Miller. When asked how he felt by The Buffalo News reporter John Vogl after the Sabres blew a two-goal lead to the Islanders in the third period on Sunday and dropped the game in OT, Miller got a little testy, which is uncharacteristic of him.
"I'm not playing at the level I guess that was expected after last season but I feel like I'm contributing and playing decent," he said Monday (quoted by The Buffalo News' Mike Harrington). "I obviously want to improve and that's the name of the game. You try to improve every day and try to win every day."
Even with Miller's struggles, the Sabres are playing their best hockey of the season, winning 12 of their last 18 and getting two more points for losses after regulation and, most impressively, they're doing it without their top center, Derek Roy. But Miller's play in this run has been overshadowed by the scoring heroics of Thomas Vanek (nine goals, 14 assists in 17 games) and Drew Stafford (13 goals, five assists in 17 games, including three hat tricks). Stafford has four hat tricks in the last two months.
Still, the 30-year-old Miller is going to be the main guy in Buffalo for at least a few more seasons and his performance will be a crucial part of any Sabres playoff push. A rest here and there wouldn't hurt, but unless Regier can find a suitable backup who Ruff trusts by the trade deadline, the weary Miller may have to work his way back to the top of his game.