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Sabres hope to get boost from Miller's return

NHL.com @NHL

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Still wearing his bulky goalie equipment after practice Thursday, Ryan Miller waddled into the Sabres locker room and plopped down in what's become his temporary stall: A blue folding chair nudged up against a wood-paneled wall.

There's only space for two goalies, and Miller has been the one squeezed out while spending the past month recovering from a sprained left ankle. The quarters are cramped and the makeshift setup not ideal or befitting a starting goaltender; but at least it's a seat that allows Miller to feel as if he's part of the team

"One step at a time," Miller said, when asked when he'll get back his familiar stall, which has been occupied by third-stringer Mikael Tellqvist, who was acquired in a trade with Phoenix earlier this month.

Move over Mikael, because Miller's moving back into the big chair starting Friday, when Buffalo hosts Toronto.

It'll be Miller's first appearance after missing 13 games, a stretch in which the Sabres posted a 4-7-2 record and went from being in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference standings to nearly falling out of contention.

With nine games remaining, the Sabres have little margin for error and very little control over their destiny, sitting in 10th place, five points behind Montreal, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

Talk about pressure.

So before anyone gets any big ideas, Miller wanted to make one thing clear on what type of boost he can provide his team: Hold off on the savior talk.

"I'm a goalie. I go out and try to stop the puck," Miller said. "If I can help make a difference, I want to do it. But by no means a guarantee, by no means a savior."

It just seems that way because the Sabres haven't been the same without Miller. Buffalo barely avoided falling further out of contention before overcoming a two-goal third period deficit to pull out a 5-3 win over Florida on Wednesday.

There's suddenly hope that the dramatic victory coupled with Miller's return could provide Buffalo the spark it needs to make one final push and avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight season.

"Any time you get your No. 1 goaltender back, that's a big deal," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We know we have to put a string of games together. That's obvious. You'd like to do that with your best goalie in the net, the guy that's got the best record. There's no reason our guys shouldn't even play harder in front of Ryan now."

Miller began skating on his own last week, and has spent the past four days testing his ankle in full practice. Though he's still experiencing some soreness, Miller said it shouldn't affect his performance.

"The last few days it's just been learning how to play with it and put it out of your mind," he said. "If this is as good as it's going to feel for a while, you might as well get out and compete and battle and do everything I need to do to stop the puck."

Another concern is Miller's stamina. After hosting Toronto, Buffalo travels to play at Montreal on Saturday to open a three-game road swing.

"We'll see," said Miller, who wore down while making 34 consecutive starts last season, but has yet to appear in 10 straight games this year. "We still have to evaluate it daily. I just want to get back in there and see how it goes."

Miller was enjoying a solid year before he was hurt, landing awkwardly into the end boards after being upended by New York Rangers forward Scott Gomez in the third period of Buffalo's 4-2 win on Feb. 21. With a 29-16-5 record, Miller still ranks 10th in victories and in a tie for eighth with a career-best five shutouts.

Just as important, Miller has a commanding presence on the ice and in the locker room, providing leadership to a team that's lacked focus and consistency over the past month. The Sabres blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to Atlanta on March 14, and followed that up by squandering a 2-0 lead in a 4-2 loss to Ottawa a day later.

Miller was upbeat, particularly after what he saw from the Sabres in rallying back to beat Florida.

"We do have a great shot to make a run. Hopefully, we gained some confidence last night," Miller said. "But I think everybody needs to draw something from themselves at this time of year. If I can be that added bump, that's great."

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