Pittsburgh heads to Buffalo to face the Sabres Tuesday night for the second time in 11 days at HSBC Arena. The Penguins pulled out a 2-1 shootout victory in the previous contest, but heading back home to Pittsburgh with a second tally in the victory column in two chances against the Sabres will not come easy as the Penguins are scheduled to see Buffalo’s No. 1 netminder, Ryan Miller, this time around.
During the Penguins trip to Buffalo on Dec. 19 they caught a break as the Sabres gave Miller a rare rest and former Penguin Patrick Lalime got the call between the pipes. Lalime did an admirable job, stopping 23 of 24 shots through the overtime period, but Kris Letang
’s backhand goal to begin the shootout proved to be the difference in a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory.
With the 2009-10 National Hockey League season reaching its halfway point Miller has thrust his name to the forefront of Vezina Trophy lists with a sizzling first three months. He is one of the key reasons the Sabres enter Monday’s games leading the Northeast Division with a 23-11-4 record, five points better than the second-place Boston Bruins. Only the New Jersey Devils (79) have given up fewer goals than the 87 allowed by the Sabres.
Penguins defenseman Jay McKee spent a couple seasons playing in front of Miller when the latter first broke into the league. McKee said some of the keys to Miller’s success include very few of the technical weaknesses you can sometimes detect in goalies as well as an ability to read the play before it unfolds.
“He is a great, technical goalie,” McKee said. “He can go through a handful of games where he doesn’t have to make any spectacular saves because he is always in position.
“He is thinking ahead of the curve. He reads plays and angles well. He battles hard in practices and in games. He doesn’t really have any weaknesses.”
“I think last year he missed a lot of time with a high-ankle sprain so I’m sure this summer he was probably thinking he had a lot to prove coming back and he was probably excited to get going,” Sidney Crosby
said. “That combined with his team playing well.
“Any goalie will tell you it helps and it builds confidence. He has been a great goalie for a long time and he is playing well this year.”
Buffalo ranks 11th in the 15-team Eastern Conference with 103 goals, meaning they have needed their goaltending to make every save they could and even a few of the ones they probably shouldn’t stop. Miller has answered that challenge by ranking near the top of the league in almost every major statistical category.
Through 32 games Miller leads the league with a .935 save percentage while ranking second in both goal-against average (1.98) and shutouts (4). Only Martin Brodeur (23), Marc-Andre Fleury
and Ilya Bryzgalov (tied with 22 apiece) have more wins than the 21 Miller has recorded.
From their location four-and-a-half hours down Interstate-80 the Penguins have certainly taken notice to how well Miller has carried the Sabres.
“His stats are pretty ridiculous this year,” Alex Goligoski said.
“I watch the highlights every morning,” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “He has been doing great. He has been very consistent all year long. I think everybody knows he has always been a great goalie. It’s no surprise he is doing this well.”
Although he is in fact doing very well this season the Penguins also know from prior experience they can get pucks behind Miller. Last season they were able to light the lamp 14 times in four contests as the Penguins and Sabres split the season series, 2-2. Miller allowed at least three goals in each game and finished with a pedestrian 3.50 goals-against average and .870 save percentage against Pittsburgh.
If they want to replicate that success again this season the Penguins will have to forego trying to make the perfect play and instead focus on getting traffic in front of Miller’s crease and having their sticks ready for tip and rebound opportunities.
“I think with any goalie these days they are going to make those first saves so you have to make things difficult by getting traffic or getting him moving to catch him out of position,” Crosby said. “You obviously get the best chances to score that way. Any time you are playing a guy like you really have to try to keep things simple and put pucks in the crease and make things difficult there.”
If anybody on the Penguins’ roster is going to know how to get pucks behind Miller it’s Crosby, as he tied for the team lead with three goals against the Sabres in ’08-09. In the most recent matchup between the Penguins and Sabres in which Miller got the start last Dec. 22 it was Crosby who secured a 4-3 overtime victory for the Penguins when he deflected an Evgeni Malkin
shot behind Miller 43 seconds into the extra session.
Miller is one of the bigger netminders in the league at 6-foot-3 so he takes up a lot of the six-by-four net, allowing him to stay in front of shots even when traffic gets into his face. That makes it important for the Penguins to also get Miller moving from side to side to expose holes that might not otherwise be there with such a lanky backstop.
Goligoski, who scored twice against Miller in that game on Dec. 22 of last year, paid possibly the ultimate compliment to Miller – he compared him to Brodeur.
“He is one of those guys like Martin Brodeur where you go into the game and you’re not going to be able to point out very many weaknesses,” Goligoski said. “Going into the game you know what you want to do.
“You want to go to the net and make it hard on him. In the game, when you are shooting, you are not trying to think about whose in net you are just worried about taking your shot.”