The Ducks knew what they were getting when they signed veteran goalie Ryan Miller to a two-year contact last summer - they just didn't know they would have to wait so long to see it come to fruition.
The 37-year-old Miller was brought in as Anaheim's backup - or rather the "1B" to John Gibson's "1A" - after 14 NHL seasons with Buffalo, St. Louis and Vancouver. That included a prolonged stretch where he was among the best goalies in the game, punctuated by a Vezina Trophy and an Olympic silver medal for Team USA in 2010.
But Miller's highly anticipated debut in Anaheim was delayed by a wrist injury suffered early in the preseason that kept him sidelined for nearly a month. "They told me it was something that had been there for awhile, and I aggravated it. I never really felt it was significant," Miller says. "As a goalie, you get hit in the hands a lot. Even looking back into last season, I was trying to think back on whether I had anything that didn't feel right."
Miller said he felt fine throughout the summer, during training and even while enjoying the occasional round of golf. "You hinge at the wrists a lot in golf, and I felt nothing wrong," Miller says. "Then all of a sudden one day, it just grabbed me. The morning of one of our preseason games just didn't go well for me, and I thought I had to play a game to see where I'm at. It just really didn't feel good, so I had to back down. I'm glad we didn't have to do anything drastic, but it is about maintenance and keeping my eye on it as the season goes."
Miller was finally able to see his first regular season action last October 29 in Carolina, the second half of a back-to-back for the Ducks - a time when teams frequently need to lean on their second goalie. Miller didn't disappoint, making 34 saves, including a number of game-saving stops among his nine in overtime in a 4-3 Ducks victory.
Miller made three more stops in winning the game in the shootout, something he's done plenty of times since the tiebreaker format was introduced by the NHL in 2005. His 58 shootout wins are the most among all NHL netminders, but you could tell this one was extra special. Just after making the clinching stop on Carolina winger Sebastian Aho, Miller pumped his fist three times, then skated over to the boards to scoop up the puck as a souvenir.
Video: ANA@CAR: Miller makes final save for shootout victory
"It definitely was a long buildup, and I was anxious to get it going," Miller says. "Joining a new team and not really being able to get out there and get into a game for awhile was something you think about a little bit too much.
"If I wasn't feeling better, I would have been more resigned to it. But I felt like I was really close and it just kind of kept getting delayed, delayed, delayed. I'm happy to get to a point where I felt like it was good enough to go and I could contribute."
It was something Miller no doubt envisioned when he signed with Anaheim and finally got the chance to work closer to the West Hollywood home he has shared for the last seven years with his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, and their young son, Bodhi. In fact, it was just after practice on Halloween as Miller spoke about his return from injury, and he had plans to go from goalie gear to a dog costume to take Bodhi trick-or-treating. "I always get dressed up," he said (no surprise since he does wear a mask for a living).
The distance between Orange County and LA can seem lengthy with typical Southland traffic, "but it's better than being hours away by plane," Miller says, referring to his time in Vancouver, St. Louis and Buffalo. "It's not perfect, but you can't ask for a better situation."
And the one silver lining of his early-season injury was that it gave him more time to spend around the house. "My wife was really busy at the time, so it was a chance to be around and help out with our son a little more," says Miller. "There are little things you just try and do to make life a little normal, but we're back into hockey now, and that's what we know."
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle says now that Miller is healthy, he will compete for time in net with Gibson rather than being deemed a backup. The "1A and 1B" mindset is something Carlyle has preferred for a long time, and it's something the Ducks expected from the day they signed Miller on the July 1 opening of free agency.
"We felt that obviously he was a guy that has history of stopping the puck, and he wanted to play for us," Carlyle said. "He wanted to come to Anaheim and play. He's got ties in L.A. He's got a home there. And it was a natural for him to come in."
And getting healthy enough to truly feel like a part of it all was a long time coming for Miller. "You sign somewhere and you want to make an impact, or at least build some trust with the guys," he says. "As a goaltender, that's something I think is really important, and I'm really happy to finally get going."