VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller will be extra cautious facing the Buffalo Sabres for the first time Friday.
Buffalo picked Miller in the fifth round (No. 138) in the 1999 NHL Draft, and he played his first 12 seasons in the Sabres organization before he was traded to the St. Louis Blues late last season. The 34-year-old goaltender expects to feel awkward playing against his former team.
"It's going to be a little bit strange," said Miller, who signed a three-year contract with Vancouver last summer. "I will pay special attention not to pass the puck towards the Buffalo symbol."
To get an idea how connected Miller was to the Sabres – and how strange it might be to play against them – consider that he passed on a chance to do it for St. Louis after the Feb. 28 trade that sent him to the Blues.
Miller said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock gave him the option to play against his former team, but he chose to start against the Philadelphia Flyers instead because he saw it as better preparation for the approaching Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, Miller conceded he didn't want the mental distraction of having to play against his former teammates so soon after the trade, even if the game was five weeks later.
"I felt just playing against the boys was not something I wanted to put my mind on at the time," Miller said after Vancouver practiced Thursday. "I identified myself for so long with the Sabres."
Miller made it clear he is fully aligned with the Canucks and their goal of hanging onto a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Making the playoffs is a goal the struggling Sabres, who have lost 13 straight games after a 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, are a long way from even setting.
Buffalo's struggles made it easier for Miller to move on.
"Timetable wise, yeah," he said. "I'm not a spring chicken, so I think in their plan they wanted players to develop with the group and the guys in that group are in their early 20s. It would have been nice to stay with one team, but for my career I wanted to keep it going."
After a slow start in Vancouver, Miller appears set to do just that.
The Michigan native is sixth in the NHL in wins with a 23-11-1 record and his save percentage, which was hovering around .900 the first two months of the season, has risen to .917, thanks in part to a 7-3-1 run since before Christmas that included consecutive shutouts.
Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said he knows it won't be easy for the thoughtful Miller to face the Sabres.
"He's a deep thinker and I know he had a lot of loyalty and a lot of good moments in Buffalo, and I know he really respects it there and the organization so there will be some emotional attachment," Desjardins said. "It's not like he left there not caring and forgot about it. He's not that kind of guy, so there will be some attachment."
Miller made his NHL debut on Nov. 19, 2002, and set a Sabres record by playing 540 games. He was 284-186-57 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in Buffalo. He also went 25-22 in the playoffs, making it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2006. Miller helped the Sabres reach another conference final the next season and won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender in 2010, but for all the early success, the final seasons in Buffalo were a struggle.
"There's that place you can go where you can kind of get numb and you don't get as emotionally charged," Miller said. "Last year I was getting a little bit numb for a stretch, but I reminded myself why I like to play and I was kind of re-energized by the challenge."
Goalie - VAN
GAA: 2.33 | SVP: .917
Miller has warmed to the challenge of playing the Sabres and is looking forward to his first trip back to Buffalo on Feb. 26. Canucks forward Zack Kassian
, who was drafted by the Sabres in 2009 and played 27 games with them in 2011-12, said he thinks the feeling will be mutual.
"People loved him in Buffalo," Kassian said.
For Miller, playing the Sabres is a chance to reconnect with former teammates and staff members like Chris Bandura, the director of media relations, and equipment manager Dave Williams, who came up from the American Hockey League at the same time as Miller.
"It's going to be nice to see some of the faces still there," he said. "But part of hockey is having fun competing against friends, former teammates, colleagues, so I look forward to these opportunities."
Miller compared it to the special feel of playing against brother Drew Miller, a Detroit Red Wings forward. In each case, it feels better to win.
"This is a chance to play against a team, an organization that meant, that does mean, a lot to me and I want to compete hard and play well," Miller said. "That's the best way to do your business."