Ryan Miller went to the Eastern Conference finals each of the last two seasons.
The Buffalo Sabres fell short of a shot at the Stanley Cup in both years, then took steps back after co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere left for lucrative free-agent contracts in the Atlantic Division.
But writing off the Sabres might have been a bit premature. Miller hasn't given up on his team, maintaining the confidence he had before the season that his club could still contend for big things.
The netminder knows his role in that success is huge, and he isn't shying away from lofty goals for the Sabres or himself.
"I feel like I'm competing a lot more, lately. We're coming along better," Miller said this week after a 42-save effort in a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. "You play better when everyone is getting into it, and we're there for each other. We're showing signs of playing responsible hockey."
Buffalo (17-14-1) stumbled out of the gate to the tune of a 6-10-1 mark, with Miller absorbing the loss in all but one game.
The Sabres then ran off 11 wins in 15 games. Miller earned the victory 10 times and allowed as many as two goals just twice when opponents netted three, yet those were both Buffalo wins.
"He really looks confident and in a groove right now," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "When we were down a while ago, I set a goal for the team. I told them we had to go 9-3 in our next dozen games to make it back to .500. We went 10-4, and we're over .500 now."
In his first two full NHL seasons, Miller earned 30 and 40 victories with goals-against averages under 2.80.
He entered this weekend 15-12-1 with a 2.58 GAA in his third full season. That left him with one fewer win than New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, last season's Vezina Trophy winner, and owning as many victories as trophy runner-up Roberto Luongo of Vancouver.
Miller's goals-against average is higher, but at least he's in the discussion of being one of the league's best goalies.
"There's something to be said for getting into a rhythm," Miller said. "I would love to be in a class with a Luongo or a Brodeur. I want to be talked about the same way, and that's a goal for me, but I have a long way to go.
"Look at how the Islanders talk about Ricky (DiPietro), and he's doing a great job. I want to be associated with Buffalo in the same way. That's my goal, and I just want to play my part to help the team win."
IRON MIKE: When Mike Keenan left coaching stops in Philadelphia, and Chicago, and New York, and St. Louis, and Vancouver, and Boston and Florida - often in messy divorces - there was never any guarantee that he would resurface somewhere else.
He would shuttle from the front office to the bench to the broadcast booth, but was never away from the NHL for more than one season at a time.
"When it first happens to you ... you never think you're going to get hired again," said Keenan, the Calgary Flames coach. "It's just like I guess your instincts as a coach. You never think you're going to win a game sometimes, either. This time I didn't think about it. If I was going to go back, I wanted to be with someone that I thought was on the same page or that we could work well together.
"I wanted to either be with the Original Six or a Canadian team. I'm just fortunate that (general manager Darryl Sutter) called me out of the blue and offered me the job. It worked out, and I have no hesitation working for Darryl whatsoever. I asked him two questions: 'Are you a good boss?' He said, 'I'm as good a boss as you are.' I said, 'Do you have good team?' And he said, 'I think we've got a good team.' So that's good enough for me."
Now Keenan is nearing the halfway mark of his first season with the Flames, and is starting to hit some special career milestones.
With a 5-3 win at St. Louis on Sunday, Keenan became the sixth NHL coach to reach 600 victories. He joined Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn, and Bryan Murray in that exclusive club.
Keenan, in his 19th season as an NHL head coach, has the Flames off to a 17-13-5 start entering the weekend.
"I was a little bit fearful of it when I started this year," Keenan said. "It's a challenging job and I've enjoyed it. Even though we had a very hard and difficult beginning in terms of working with the group and assimilating the group, I still wanted to come to the rink badly every day.
"I think the fire's really burning right now. I'm looking forward to hopefully many more years of this yet because I've got that passion back again and it feels good."
GOALIE FLAP: Call it just a minor "flap."
Dallas Stars goalies Marty Turco and Mike Smith raised eyebrows and a little intrigue Thursday in Vancouver by intimating that Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo was using a small flap on his pads for extra blocking surface.
Turco and Smith strapped pieces of cardboard to the same spot on their pads and wrote the number "1" - Luongo's jersey number - on each piece during the morning skate before that night's 3-2 loss to Vancouver.
The padding - about three to four inches long and maybe two inches high - sits on the outside of each pad around the knee and is often tucked in behind the pads by straps. But Luongo wears his pads looser and his straps lower, an option on the new Reebok pads, than others. That allows the flap to poke out the sides of his pads.
"It was part comical, part serious," said Turco, who sat in on NHL competition committee meetings after New Jersey's Martin Brodeur quit but is not yet an official member.
"We all have them. They're usually behind the 11 inches," he added. "We all need side protection, and Louie's knees are just a little bit bigger than others so fortunately it sticks out for him."
Former NHL goalie Kay Whitmore, who polices netminding equipment for the NHL, said the Stars first brought attention to Luongo's flap before the opener of last season's first-round playoff series between the teams.
Vancouver won the seven-game series, which featured three shutouts and two other games decided by 2-1 scores.
"This was the same issue I had when I was the series manager last year," Whitmore said. "Mike and Marty's pads have the same thing on it, but they choose to wear it so that it doesn't stick out. But you tell me how many pucks those are going to stop? To me, it's much ado about nothing."
Luongo also downplayed it this week, pointing out that the equipment is approved by the league office before it can be worn in a game.
"Marty and I are friends. I don't think he was doing it in a malicious way," Luongo said. "It was in good fun, it was nothing malicious and unfortunately you guys are there to make it a bigger deal than it is. There's nothing there, and everything is fine.
"The flap was reduced last year and this year (the manufacturer) made it smaller. It's not an issue and I don't want to talk about it anymore."
USHERING IN STARS: Usher will host two benefit performances during All-Star weekend next month in Atlanta.
The festivities will include performances by Grammy Award-winning musician Wyclef Jean, and the Jonas Brothers, will proceeds benefiting Usher's New Look Foundation.
Usher, who has won five Grammy Awards, is a native of Atlanta. His New Look Foundation is a nonprofit program that was established to expose young people to the business side of sports and entertainment.
The NHL is shooting to raise more than $200,000 for the foundation.
AP freelance writer Kevin Woodley contributed to this report.