When I first realized that the Buffalo Sabres were about to suffer yet another significant beating, I couldn’t help but make an immediate assumption that something is very, very wrong with Ryan Miller. Yet when I peeked at his page at hockey reference.com, I saw that his save percentage was a very respectable 91.9 percent. (Although, to be fair, that number will go down after tonight’s jarring loss against the Philadelphia Flyers).
Does that mean that Miller’s off the hook? Well, not completely.
After wrestling the title of Perceived Best Goalie in the World away from luminaries such as Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist and so on thanks to a splendid 2009-10 season and Olympic run, Miller is struggling. But he’s not struggling uniformly; instead, Miller either puts together an outstanding effort or lays down a stink bomb.
While he played well in two losses, it’s still stunning to look at winning Miller versus losing Miller.
Ryan Miller in wins (three games)
2-1 win at Ottawa: 25 saves on 26 shots for one goal allowed.
4-1 win at Atlanta: 17 saves on 18 shots for one goal allowed.
6-1 win at New Jersey: 26 saves on 27 shots for one goal allowed.
So, in three wins, Miller stopped 68 out of 71 shots and only allowed one goal per game. Notice the fact Buffalo allowed an average of less than 24 shots per game and no more than 27 in any single contest in those wins.
Ryan Miller in losses (six games)
6-3 loss at home vs. Rangers: 22 saves on 27 shots for five goals allowed (plus empty-netter).
4-3 loss at home vs. Chicago: 26 saves on 30 shots for four goals allowed.
1-0 overtime loss at home vs. Devils: 34 saves on 35 shots for one goal allowed.
2-1 loss at home vs. Canadiens: 26 saves on 28 shots for two goals allowed.
4-2 loss at home vs. Ottawa: 28 saves on 31 shots for three goals allowed.
6-3 loss in Philadelphia: 28 saves on 33 shots for five goals allowed.
Now, it’s not like Miller has been that bad in every loss. He didn’t have any goal support in a great performance against New Jersey and only one goal to work with when he was solid at home against Montreal.
Any goalie’s numbers will look worse in losses, but there’s certainly a stark contrast so far for Miller (and the team in front of him). He stopped 164 out of 184 shots in those six losses, which would yield an 89.1 save percentage. Those 20 goals in six games makes for a 3.33 goal per game average to boot (his actual GAA would be a little higher considering the times he was pulled from the net).
As you can see, when the shots pile up past that 27 shot threshold, things slip considerably for the all-world goalie. Obviously, he played well in some of those losses, though, as his team only gave him one goal to work with against Montreal and none against the Devils. The Sabres allowed an average of 30.6 shots per game in defeat, about seven more than in victories.
So, the question is, will Miller and the Sabres snap out of it? Well, it’s hard to say. If the “Miller usually falters when his defense gives up 28 or more shots” trend continues, it’s a little shaky as 30 shots allowed seems like the Mendoza line in the NHL so far. (Buffalo allows 27.9 per game, but I would guess that number didn’t factor in tonight’s 33 shots allowed.)
The most disturbing number of them all, though, is the team’s overall home record of 0-4-1. You’d think that they would play better in Buffalo with the benefit of choosing their own defensive matchups, but that hasn’t been the case so far.
Ultimately, Miller is still an elite goalie, but the Sabres are probably too dependent on him to play that way every night. An already mediocre defense lost some stable (but not spectacular) pieces such as Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder and their offense is OK but far from dominant, so there isn’t much room for error.
My guess is that Miller will straighten things to some extent, but it won’t be enough to win the Northeast. Making the playoffs isn’t out of the question yet, but the Sabres need to play better hockey in front of their all-world goalie to have a legitimate chance.