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by Kevin Snow / Buffalo Sabres

Buffalonians are used to packing into hockey rinks, especially in the middle of winter. So it should come as no surprise that on this drizzly, Friday morning in January, an estimated crowd of 300 fans jammed their way inside a rink at the Northtown Center in Amherst to watch a group of Buffalo Sabres take part in an informal workout for just over an hour.

The star attraction for these hockey-starved fans on this day was goaltender Ryan Miller, skating with his Sabres teammates for the first time since making his way across the country from his offseason home in California on Thursday. The crowds at Northtown Center have continued to swell throughout the week, and that came as no surprise to Miller.

“It was nice to see them. Buffalo is such a great sports city and a big hockey city. I can’t imagine being a fan and not having that outlet,” said Miller. “For me, being a fan, it was hard not to have (hockey) on TV. I try to check out games; watch to see how players are doing. I tried to tune in to some of the World Junior stuff, and if there was a random game on the satellite I’d try to catch it.”

Training camps across the NHL are expected to get underway this weekend, leaving players in the unique position of having less than a week to get into game shape for the truncated 48-game schedule that begins on January 19.

Miller was one of the players who decided to not sign anywhere during the lockout, opting to stay home and workout on a regular basis with other players in the Los Angeles area. Despite the belief that game-tested players will have an advantage, Miller thinks the playing field will level out quickly.

“Game shape is the key thing. Just gonna have to jump into it. No one is going to have an advantage, I don’t think. Even guys playing in other leagues; it’s a different pace and there’s a time change for them coming back. The American League guys…they might have a little bit of something going. But I think when the NHL boys get up to speed, it’ll all even out.”

After playing a high-profile role during part of the negotiations, Miller said it will nice to finally focus on hockey knowing there’s a goal light at the end of the tunnel. Like it was for most players, not having that carrot in front of them for the past few months sometimes made their daily routine monotonous.

“It’s gonna be different. This whole thing has been about sustaining. Everything about this year has been a false start. You got your hopes up around November, you got your hopes up around December, you got your hopes up towards the end of December. You’d try and ramp up for each of those. For me it was just about staying pretty level, skating three to four times a week at least.

“I feel that hockey-wise I’m in a pretty good spot. Mentally, I think I always kind of knew it was going to be a short, sprint kind of situation. It’s not a surprise for any of us. I don’t think it’s something you can use as a crutch or anything. Everyone is gonna go through it.”

Head coach Lindy Ruff said Wednesday that he could foresee Miller playing in the neighborhood of 36-38 games this season, but the 2010 Vezina Trophy winner said this is not something he’s spent a lot of time worrying about.

“I didn’t put any thought into a number. I thought I’d be ready to play, just get tapped on the shoulder and go about it that way,” Miller stated. “Just because, you’ve gotta have your best guys, and who’s ever playing the best, going. I just want to be that guy, and we’ll go by that. If I’m playing at a high enough level, I’d like to be in net.”

Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Sulzer also were part of today’s skate for the first time, bringing the total of Sabres to 19. Injured forwards Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick were the only roster players to not take part in any of the skates at Northtown Center this week.

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