Earlier this season, Ryan Miller
would be the first to admit his game was not at the world-class level that everyone -- including Miller himself -- had come to expect.
Indeed, it is Miller Time again in Buffalo, making a run by the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Playoffs more than just a talk-radio pipe dream.
Goalie - BUF
GAA: 2.59 | SVP: 0.915
In fact, no other goalie in the NHL has posted a better save percentage in his past five starts than Ryan's .961 -- including back-to-back shutouts in a brilliant 82-save two-day swing through Anaheim and San Jose.
I had the opportunity to sit just two rows behind Miller earlier this week when he made 43 of those saves in Anaheim. Being some 15 feet from his net for two periods offered an enhanced appreciation for just how far the 31-year-old netminder has elevated his game since the nadir or the season in the wake of his head-rattling collision with Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic
on Nov. 12.
So, technically speaking, what is Miller doing differently now compared to his early-season slump?
Quite simply, he's gotten back to the fundamentals that, just two years ago, earned him MVP honors at the Vancouver Olympics — not to mention a Vezina Trophy for his trophy case.
1. Focus. His cowboy-standoff stare never leaves the 200 x 85 sheet of ice. He's not getting distracted watching replays on the scoreboard or gazing up at the hockey gods in frustration -- as was all too common in November when he posted an .810 save percentage. His Zen-like focus has allowed him to recapture the superior puck-tracking skills, allowing him to see through the maze of bodies, legs and sticks and criss-cross chaos of modern-day goaltending. By seeing the puck more, he is stopping more shots.
2. Positioning. During his slump, Miller would sometimes find himself either too deep in his crease or coming out too far, often not square to the puck. Now he's more square than North Dakota and is playing the angles to near-perfection, especially on paddle-down situations tight to his post. It's truly so geometrically precise that he's as much a "mathlete" as an athlete in those situations.
3. Timing. Whereas Miller had been frequently flopping down too early at the start of the season, leading to him getting beat up high or shooters pulling dekes around his prone body, Miller has showed off Rolex-precise timing during his hot streak. Frustrated at being unable to crack Miller, Anaheim forwards Ryan Getzlaf
and Corey Perry
resorted to scrapping when they couldn't score.
4. Movement. In one word, Miller has been "fluid." He's no longer dropping into a stationary butterfly that had him stuck Velcro-like to the ice; instead, he's sliding his pads flat and gliding into position in front the puck with all the friction-less ease of a curling stone.
5. Motivation. One thing that seems to motivate Miller most is a little fire in his belly. Whether it is proving wrong doubting fans, critical columnists, or even management after trading his close pal Paul Gaustad
, Miller has a pattern of turning in great performances when he has a healthy chip on his shoulder.
Judging by the way he has been playing recently, it is a block that won't be easily knocked off down the stretch.