"Now I'm enjoying the benefit playing for a team that is more focused on backchecking and bringing five players closer to me in the defensive zone."
-- Ryan Miller
As the run up to the Olympic break continues, Buffalo Sabres
goalie Ryan Miller
remains the top candidate to win the Vezina Trophy at the League's postseason awards ceremony in Las Vegas six months from now.
Miller either leads or is among the leaders in all major statistical categories for goalies, and the Sabres are first in the NHL's Northeast Division.
Miller, who on New Year's Day was selected by USA Hockey as one of the three goalies headed to the Olympics in Vancouver, didn't arrive at this juncture by happenstance.
From the moment he returned from a broken thumb that kept him off the American Olympic roster in 2006, Miller has been rising in the goaltending world to the point where he can now be considered among the elite.
This season, with the help of new training methods and a team-wide system geared toward keeping the puck out of the net, Miller has been better than ever and the Sabres are loving it.
It started over the summer. After back-to-back playoff-less springs in 2008 and 2009, Miller began working to improve his overall conditioning by focusing on areas of need.
"I just trained the muscles that are important to me," he said. "For me it's just mainly about posture and how my hips feel. I built a routine around maintaining flexibility and strength. It's not necessarily where I am trying to train big muscles in big ways. I'm doing a lot of core control, range of motion. You have to spread out as a goaltender a lot so I'm trying to be strong and quick to get in those positions."
Instead of bike riding or running long distances, Miller swam at least once a week because that way he could get his heart rate up without straining his lower body.
"I need two or three months away from the butterfly so I try to steer clear of anything that is going to put more impact into that area," Miller said.
The results so far this season aren't because of the training, Miller said, but the goal wasn't to get better results in October, November and December. Miller wants to stay consistent throughout the season and into the playoffs to give the Sabres a better shot.
Buffalo could be built for a long playoff run if Miller stays on top of his game. He feels they missed the playoffs the last two seasons because, at times, his game tailed off.
"There were times where I started to get sore and started to get tired and then my game deteriorates until I get maintenance on it," he said. "This is just to get ahead of things."
Miller instead believes his personal success is a byproduct of the Sabres' system, which now appears to have been a three-year process.
Since 2006-07, Buffalo has experienced some major turnover and the roster has been stripped of stars and playmakers like Danny Briere
, Chris Drury
and Brian Campbell
. The strategy had to change, too, and after back-to-back seasons sans playoffs it appears the Sabres have found a system that works.
"Now I'm enjoying the benefit playing for a team that is more focused on backchecking and bringing five players closer to me in the defensive zone," Miller said. "It's something a lot of goalies who have been with a team for a few years enjoy because the coaching staff can look at a system and figure out what works for their goaltender. I think we have a little bit of that going on with the Sabres. The last two years we have been trying stuff and this year it's a closer fit to the personnel that we have."
Miller, one of the more intellectual players in the League, also has grown more comfortable in his role with the club. He is the most important player on the team and that also means he is the Sabres' pseudo spokesperson.
Good or bad, Miller has to stand in front of the media and tell the Sabres' side of the story nearly every single day.
"It's something you have to get used to as you get older," he said. "I think the last few years that was probably the case for our entire team, getting used to our roles and having to answer the tough questions, talk to the media every night, step up and be accountable. It's something you have to get used to; it's not something you can just dive into. You have to live through a lot of the experiences when you are a goaltender in a hockey crazy city."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com