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Slow, steady rise for Sabres' Miller

by Adam Schwartz

For someone who became a goalie in California, the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller has come a long way to become one of the NHL's premier netminders.

Miller, whose family moved often during his childhood, remembers the deal he made with his father that enabled him to move from forward to goalie.

"In California, I had my chance to give it (goalie) a try," Miller said. "I had a deal with my dad, I think it was to score a couple goals and get three assists and I could try goalie. I went out the next game and got the points and that was that. Now we're sitting here and I still have fun playing goalie.

"My dad told me from the beginning, 'You better be the best goalie you can be because only one guy gets to be on the ice and play the majority of the games.' Early on that motivated me to be on the ice and play because I loved hockey so much and that was what I wanted to do."

Playing at Michigan State instead of jumping to Canadian junior helped Miller develop his game. Still, he was taken in the fifth round (No. 138) of the 1999 Entry Draft and wasn't a highly touted prospect,

"There wasn't an emphasis on being as good as you could possibly be right away at Michigan State," Miller said. "I felt like in juniors that would be the kind of ticket I would get. I would have to get in there and be lights out right away and I wasn't ready to play at that level. So, I took another year of junior B and took the opportunity to play at Michigan State. We had a good defensive team that allowed me to develop my skills and not have a ton of pressure. I worked it into an environment where I could work on my game all week. I could focus on things during the week and then play two games and then I could go back to what I need to work on."

The plan paid off as Miller led the Sabres to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals 2005-06 and 2006-07. But last season, Buffalo missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

"A team that wins a championship or goes on a couple long runs in the playoffs can have a down year the next year," Miller said. "I've noticed a lot of baseball teams and a lot of hockey teams hit a lull the season after going far into the playoffs. Even with my American (Hockey) League team it affected us because we went deep a couple rounds and then a lot of that team was on the Sabres when we went to the conference finals and that's a lot of hockey for three years."

Miller recognizes that the results of long playoff drives can leave a team tired and stressed.

"I was pretty stressed in those situations," Miller said. "There are summers where you don't get the rest you need because you have to work yourself back into training camp shape and it takes a couple months to get back to that level usually. To make yourself into a premier athlete is going to take some time. This year I had time to recover and I think I used it well."

Miller certainly needed the extra time off after setting a franchise record for goalies with 76 games. Miller admitted to getting fatigued down the stretch.

"I think you have to be realistic about how many games you are going to play," he said. "I don't think the way that things are set up that you can play every game. You want to do it and you want to be the guy in the net every night. I think that's common being a top goalie in the NHL, you want to play as much as you can as often as you can. The way a goaltender gets prepared for a season you're not going to play 82 games, and for me 76 was a struggle. I got tired and fatigued and that crept in."

To avoid a repeat of that problem, Miller changed his summer routine, paying closer attention to his nutrition and core strength.

"I tried some different things in my workout this summer," he said. "I had a trainer and I focused a lot more on my core strength. Being a goaltender there's a lot of strain on your hips, groin and back. Hopefully with the improvements in that area I can be less fatigued and I can focus on the ice in practice and I can be in a lot better condition.

"I want to take the necessary preparations, like my nutrition, which is not very good," he admitted.
"I'm a thin guy as it is and as the season wears on I need more fuel in the body. I need to be more efficient in practice. I need to conserve energy in the right spots and put that energy into where I need to at game time."

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