Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller admits he's getting back to what got him to the NHL in the first place and, well, the proof is there for all to see.
Not only is Miller the only unbeaten goalie (7-0-1) in regulation play this season, but he leads the League in goals-against average (1.60) and save percentage (.944).
What many forget is Miller was having a splendid 2008-09 season before suffering a nagging ankle sprain that sidelined him a month. He would finish 34-18-6, but the Sabres just missed out on qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But Miller is certainly picking up where he left off before his injury and doing so at the opportune time. Don't forget, USA Hockey's managerial staff is in evaluation mode right now for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"It goes hand in hand -- I have to perform for the Sabres and I have to perform for my own expectations and I expect my game to be at a certain level anyways," Miller told NHL.com. "That level should be good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team because I consider myself the kind of goalie who can challenge to be tops in the League. If that's not what they're looking for, then OK.
"I want to compete and challenge every night. I've worked hard to identify parts of my game that I had to work on the past 3-4 years to challenge to be an elite goalie in this League."
Fact is, Miller already is among the League's elite, whether he knows it or not.
"I think there's no doubt that the secret to any team's success is in goal and Ryan has to be the backbone for us to succeed," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Strong goaltending can lead a lot of teams a long way and Ryan is a key for us. He's playing extremely well right now and we'd like to keep him in his groove."
One goalie Miller respects is New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, a likely candidate for one of the three goalie slots on Team Canada who has always been impressed by Miller.
"He's a pretty in-control goalie," Brodeur said. "I've known him for a long time and have played against him for a long time. He's a guy that, technique-wise, is pretty together. He doesn't take himself out of the play. He's pretty solid and he's really competitive."
The road to success hasn't been easy for Miller, who admits he's committed to getting back to the type of game that earned him the starter's role in 2005-06 with the Sabres.
"I've adjusted the way I read the game -- I was starting to sit back a little too much," Miller said. "I got to this League because of my ability to challenge shooters, my ability to skate and my ability to read the play well. I thought I was having one of my better seasons of my career (in 2008-09), if not my best season, but was sidelined and missed a big chunk of games."
Despite missing several games with his ankle injury, Miller, who had signed a five-year extension in July 2008 to remain in Buffalo through 2013-14, finished the season with career bests in goals-against average (2.53), save percentage (.918) and shutouts (5). He considers it a turning point.
"I felt that was my chance to get the team back to the playoffs, but we just missed out," Miller said. "So over the summer I worked on my strength and wanted to identify why goalies were having hip and groin issues. I worked with a trainer back home and improved hip stability, leg strength and my range of motion -- things that can help me get into plays and challenge a little more. At the same time, I'd still be effective on those backside plays since I'll have the ability to stretch out or have explosive power."
Miller certainly appears more confident in his game this season. He not only hopes it leads Buffalo to its first playoff appearance in three seasons, but a trip to Vancouver with Team USA in the Winter Olympics.
"The Sabres need me to be consistent night in and night out and need to know what they're going to get from me," he said. "That's going to just transfer over to the U.S. Olympic team, knowing what kind of goalie I am."
He's also been proud with how well the team has played in front of him all season. In fact, the Sabres average a League-leading 36 shots per game while averaging 3.22 goals, and it's been more than enough for Miller. What goalie wouldn't appreciate that type of support?
"I also think we respect what can happen over the course of a season," Miller said. "You can never get too high after a victory or too low when things don't go your way. It's the reality of an 82-game schedule; it's a long haul."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com