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Sabres' Miller laments playoff-less spring

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- For hockey fans and players alike, it doesn't get any better right now. The calendar turns to April, the regular season comes to a close, and the intensity and passion that comes with playoff hockey arrives. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

But what if you're forced to watch playoff hockey from your couch?

"It's tough," said Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who stopped by the NHL Powered by RBK Store in Manhattan to tape an appearance on the Cisco All-Access Pregame Show, "because we had a good record against the top teams, Boston, Washington. I think we could've done some damage."

Miller is right -- the Sabres held their own against the Capitals, splitting the four-game season series, and they had their way against the Eastern Conference champion Bruins, going 4-2-0, including winning the last three meetings by a combined 13-5. One major reason for the Sabres' 10th-place finish was their performance against the bottom of the conference. Against the Thrashers, Lightning and Islanders, Buffalo could only muster a 4-5-3 mark.

Another reason the Sabres fell short -- although Miller refused to use it as an excuse -- were the injuries. Sabres leading scorer Thomas Vanek took a shot in the face that fractured his jaw, requiring the left wing to miss nine games. Defenseman and team captain Craig Rivet missed 18 games with a variety of injuries. Center Tim Connolly, who has averaged nearly a point-per-game during his last two seasons, missed 34 games with back and rib problems. Maxim Afinogenov missed 24 games with a groin injury. Right wing Patrick Kaleta also missed 24 games with head and neck injuries. Even Miller missed 13 games with a high-ankle sprain before returning for the stretch run.

That's a lot of important Sabres missing huge chunks of time. But don't tell that to Miller.

"We had injuries, but we had them the first time we went deep into the playoffs," said Miller, citing the 2005-06 team that lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes. "(Danny) Briere had a sports hernia, (J.P.) Dumont too. The bottom line is you have to find a way to compete."

Miller found a way. He shook off his high-ankle sprain and played in eight of Buffalo's last nine games, posting a 5-2-1 mark with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage despite playing in constant pain. To add insult to injury, the pain in his ankle is still bad enough that the American-born goalie had to withdraw from this year's World Championships in Switzerland.

"I played eight of the last nine games, was in night in and night out," said Miller. "I would've played for the Sabres (in the playoffs), but with Team USA, I have obligations to the Sabres. I need to give myself time to heal. I wasn't in the condition to play in a world-class tournament like that. I didn't want to have to take two Aleve and four Tylenol before every game.

"With the butterfly, every time I went down to my knees I'd feel it. Pushing off would hurt too, but having to push off while down in the butterfly was worse."

Despite being unable to represent his country this year, Miller has his sights set on the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The Games aren't taking place on American soil, but the thought of representing Team USA in an Olympics so close to home has the 29-year-old excited.

"I mean, it would be an honor, a dream come true," said Miller. "I was born after the Miracle on Ice, but to get a chance to play near your home turf -- it's Canada, but we should have some good support there -- hopefully I'll keep my game where it needs to be and stay healthy. It would be great."

Just because the Sabres are home for the NHL's second season doesn't mean Miller lacks a rooting interest. His brother, Anaheim Ducks forward Drew Miller, is getting a taste of postseason hockey. While he wouldn't give a playoff prediction, the goaltender was quick to throw his support behind his younger brother.

"I want to see my brother do well, so I'll be rooting for him," said Miller. "I think they can rise up and use that underdog status. I think the East is pretty wide-open. Anything can happen there."

Miller has every right to be bitter about missing the playoffs and his nagging injury, but he is optimistic about the 2009-10 season. As a matter of fact, Miller has found a silver lining in the dark clouds that have hung over Buffalo the past two seasons.

"We have a lot of young guys with new roles and new responsibility," said Miller. "These are growing pains, but sometimes that's part of it. It's rough, and it's tough for our fans, two years and no playoffs, but sometimes you have to go through growing pains to get what you want."

What Miller wants is to be suiting up and facing shots on the first night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not dealing with reporters in midtown Manhattan. He's not even sure what his plans are -- besides resting the ankle -- during these hockey-less months for him and the Sabres.

"Last year I spent time blogging for Maxim," said Miller with a laugh. "This year, I don't know. I'm around for the media, I guess."

Dealing with the pain of injury and missing the playoffs is one thing, but no one should be forced to suffer like that.

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