Ryan Miller

Hockey Day Preview: Ryan Miller struggles to carry Sabres again

When you’re on the streak of a lifetime, it’s important not to ask silly questions like “How can I possibly follow this up?” or “Will I ever reach these heights again?” Instead, you just ride the wave of success as far as it will take you and hope that you can navigate those currents once again when things go back to normal.

Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews were among the players who had incredible 2010 runs, but Ryan Miller’s year stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them. You might already know about his accomplishments already, but if not, here’s a quick rundown:

  • He (fairly easily) won the Vezina Trophy for the 2009-10 season.
  • Miller’s stellar goaltending powered the U.S. Olympic team to overachieve their way to a silver medal, as the team fell one iconic overtime gold medal winning goal away from the highest glory.
  • Miller was the catalyst for the Sabres’ surprising Northeast Division title run, even if the team fell short in the first round against the Boston Bruins.

It’s the kind of complete year that is hard to top, something that probably isn’t lost on the talented goalie as he struggles mightily during the 2010-11 campaign.

The drop-off

Miller only lost 18 games in regulation during each of the 08-09 and 09-10 seasons. He could match that mark already if the Sabres lose to the Washington Capitals today. After earning a career-high 92.9 save percentage behind a spotty Buffalo defense, he’s down to 91 percent this season (slightly lower than his career average of 91.4). He also has the highest goals against average (2.74) of any season in which he played 40 or more games, although he has time to move that below his career-worst mark of 2.73 from 06-07.

Buffalo might be making strides in the standings, but that probably has more to do with Drew Stafford’s recent offensive outburst than a significant improvement from Miller. In fact, judging from his split stats, February’s been his worst month with an average GAA of 3.11 and 89.2 save percentage. (It’s the only month in which his GAA is above three and his save percentage is below 90 percent.)

So, we’ve established the fact that Miller is falling far short of his possibly unsustainable 09-10 output. But the questions are: why is he struggling and is he still an elite goalie?

Explaining his struggles

If you ask me, it all comes down to the fact that Buffalo put way too much pressure on Miller to be one of the absolute best goalies on a nightly basis. The team’s defense wasn’t exactly outstanding last season, but they allowed steady-if-unspectacular mainstays Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder go for less proven replacements. They also assumed that Tyler Myers could match his breakthrough rookie season, which is asking a lot from a young player who is probably still growing into his lanky frame.

A shaky defense already puts Miller in a tough spot, but a lack of a go-to backup places even more weight on the American netminder’s shoulders. While the Rangers gave their workhorse goalie Henrik Lundqvist a capable backup in Martin Biron and the Devils invested in solid No. 2 Johan Hedberg for Martin Brodeur, the Sabres stuck with a second banana they clearly don’t trust in Patrick Lalime.

Lalime has appeared in seven games this season, going a nauseating 0-5-0 with a 2.96 GAA and 89 save percentage. The team’s lack of trust in Lalime and excessive reliance on Miller was clear when Jhonas Enroth relieved their No. 1 goalie after Miller played 31 consecutive games.

Conclusions

The Sabres skimped on a decent backup and assumed that Miller could clean up the messes of an even more fragile defense. Does that mean that his struggles are all Buffalo’s fault? No, some of it falls at Miller’s feet, but the team put him in a position to fail this season.

Buffalo can still make the playoffs and Miller is far from a lost cause, but the team would be wise to improve their suspect defense and take advantage of what should be a buyer’s market for reliable backups this summer. (Or even during the trade deadline … Ty Conklin and Chris Phillips, anyone?)

Yes, Thornton and Marleau have been dreaming of a run like this

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 07:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after Patrick Marleau (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against Kevin Bieksa #3 (L) and the Vancouver Canucks in overtime of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 7, 2013 in San Jose, California. The Sharks defeated the Canucks 4-3 to sweep the series 4 games to 0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After seeing them suffer some ignominious playoff defeats, plenty of people are happy for Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton as they enter their first Stanley Cup Final.

The two veteran San Jose Sharks forwards aren’t playing coy about it, either; they’ve been picturing such scenarios for ages.

Both Thornton and Marleau seemingly uttered the same things as Game 1 approaches against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

“This is everything I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time,” Marleau said.

It’s hard to believe that we are months removed from a time when it seemed like one or both of these longtime Sharks were in the thick of seemingly legitimate trade rumors. Marleau, in particular, sounded like he might be on the verge of moving on.

Instead, they’re as deep in the postseason as they have ever been and Thornton is talking about his beard.

Life is good.

Joel Ward believes NHL should retire No. 22 in honor of Willie O’Ree

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 15:  NHL ambassador Willie O'Ree talks with the Capital City Crew and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association during a clinic, Hockey is for Everyone, sponsored by the NHL and the Carolina Hurricanes at the Cary Ice House on May 15, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina.   (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images for NHL)
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Sometimes players wear a jersey number as a tribute to a childhood favorite. Sometimes it’s merely to mark their birth year and other times it’s merely what was handed to them.

For Joel Ward, his 42 has a lot of meaning, and it brings to mind black athletes who were pioneers in their respective sports.

Yes, indeed, Ward wears No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. As the San Jose Sharks forward told ESPN, he’d love it if the NHL discussed retiring No. 22 in honor of its first black hockey player, Willie O’Ree.

“I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure,” Ward said. “The league obviously does that with task force but I do think that Willie should definitely be a big part of the league for sure for what he did. It’s a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.”

Sounds like a great idea, one that would echo the MLB doing the same with Robinson’s No. 42.

For more, check out that great ESPN story.

Sharks and DeBoer ready for Pittsburgh, ‘the fastest team in the league’

SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Head coach Peter DeBoer talks to his team during their game against the Anaheim Ducks at SAP Center on October 10, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The San Jose Sharks are one of the NHL’s best skating teams.

Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette, who watched his Predators get bounced by the Sharks in Round 2, said as much.

So too did St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock, whose Blues were eliminated by San Jose in the Western Conference Final.

“They’re a fast team,” Hitchcock said. “They skate fast. They skate fast, they support the puck. They might look faster than they are, but they’ve got a lot of quick players.

“They’ve got a lot of aggressive skating players. They got a lot of guys that can motor.”

Yeah, the Sharks are quick.

But according to their head coach, maybe not the quickest.

During today’s Stanley Cup media availability, Peter DeBoer called the Pittsburgh Penguins “the fastest team in the league,” adding this series wouldn’t be just about skating, but the possession game as well.

“If you control the puck,” DeBoer explained, “it’s harder to create speed.”

And with that, the 2016 Stanley Cup Final blueprint took shape.

To be fair, the speed-versus-speed angle had already been established. Almost immediately after beating Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, Pens captain Sidney Crosby was asked about his club’s looming matchup with the Sharks.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous.

“It’s going to be quite the series.”

On defense, both teams feature good mobility, highlighted by a star offensive defenseman: Brent Burns for San Jose, Kris Letang for Pittsburgh.

“Both have great shots and get pucks through,” Pens d-man Justin Schultz said, per the Tribune-Review. “Both are always jumping up. And great skaters. Both are very mobile.

“Tanger is for sure a lot smoother [as a skater]. But Burnsy is still fast. And more powerful, maybe. He’s a big boy, and he’s going to be tough to handle.”

Each respective blueline plays a big role in the generation of team speed. Both the Pens and Sharks have excellent transition games featuring quick, speedy forwards, so it makes sense — the defensemen, tasked with getting those forwards the pucks, need to be mobile too.

Up front, there’s speed across the board. Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin won fastest skater competition at All-Star weekend four years ago. Last week, Sharks d-man Brenden Dillon said 36-year-old Patrick Marleau is “still one of the fastest skaters in the league.” Phil Kessel and Matt Nieto can fly, too.

So when previewing the Stanley Cup Final, don’t be fooled when you read predictions of a “quick series.”

That doesn’t mean it’ll be over quick.

Just means it’ll be quick.

Related: Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

Penguins or Sharks? PHT makes its Stanley Cup Final picks

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks skates on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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After 14 series, just one pick left — the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks.

It’s a great match-up, with tons of talent on each side. However, we’d be lying if we said we saw it coming. (We didn’t.) The Penguins, who fired their coach halfway through the season, haven’t been this far since 2009. The Sharks, who missed the playoffs altogether last season, have never been this far.

Looking back on our conference finals picks, PHT staffers did fairly well, with both yours truly and James O’Brien nailing each series score (Penguins in 7, Sharks in 6) on the nose. Unfortunately, the virtual coin continued to struggle, as did the actual Ryan Dadoun.

Conference finals results (Overall record)

Brough: 2-0 (10-4)
Halford: 1-1 (8-6)
O’Brien: 2-0 (10-4)
Dadoun: 1-1 (6-8)
Tucker: 2-0 (10-4)
Alfieri: 2-0 (9-5)
Just Flip A Coin: 1-1 (6-8)

On to the Stanley Cup Final…

Brough: Sharks in 6

Despite what happened last season, I believed Pete DeBoer when he predicted a “big bounce-back” in San Jose. Because when a roster still boasts Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it shouldn’t be written off. That being said, I didn’t think they’d get this far. The one thing I was skeptical about was the goaltending, since Martin Jones had never been a full-time starter in the NHL. But he’s been solid enough. And besides, the Sharks have so much firepower, and they’ve been so committed to checking in these playoffs, that they’ve rarely needed their goalie to stand on his head. Obviously, the Penguins have been great too, but the Sharks look like an unstoppable force to me.

Halford: Sharks in 7

The Sharks either have incredible luck or a really good medical staff, because I can’t remember the last time a team came into a Stanley Cup Final this healthy. Right now, San Jose’s only injury concern is Matt Nieto‘s upper-body ailment, and it sounds like he might be back soon anyway. This is why I give San Jose the edge. I could honestly see Trevor Daley‘s broken ankle being the difference in a series between two such evenly matched teams.

O’Brien: Sharks in 6

Mike Sullivan’s turn with the Penguins has been both beautiful (in the exhilarating pace) and brilliant (in how that tempo leverages Pittsburgh’s strengths and camouflages weaknesses). The Sharks strike me as the antidote, however. If the pace is frenetic, San Jose boasts comparable firepower. If transition goes from lightning-fast to molasses-slow, Peter DeBoer enjoys a significant advantage on defense. Here’s hoping this series boasts the sort of thrilling hockey that can convert new fans. Either way … advantage Sharks.

Dadoun: Penguins in 7

There’s a lot of love for the Sharks so far and I have to admit I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally win a championship, but the Penguins shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a team that has the luxury of putting Phil Kessel on the third line, after all. That kind of offensive balance in the Penguins’ top three lines will make them the biggest challenge that goalie Martin Jones and the Sharks’ defense has faced yet. That depth is also the difference between this year’s Pittsburgh squad and the ones that have fallen short in recent years. Certainly there’s a lot of reasons to like the Sharks, too. This should be a great series.

Tucker: Sharks in 7

This series features the top scoring teams in these playoffs. The Sharks averaged 3.5 goals per game, while the Penguins averaged 3.2 goals per game. I expect this to be a thrilling match-up featuring some of the league’s most talented players on both sides. I think goaltending is going to be a huge factor. Can a 22-year-old rookie in Matt Murray continue his strong run of play in the biggest series of them all? He’s done well with every test so far, but if the Sharks get to him and force Marc-Andre Fleury into the series — or force Mike Sullivan to make that decision — I don’t think Fleury will be able to conjure a championship-winning performance against the lineup the Sharks possess.

Alfieri: Sharks in 6

At this stage of the game, there’s no doubt that these two teams are as evenly matched as can be. Offensively, the Sharks are led by Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, while the Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. In goal, Martin Jones and Matt Murray have both had their moments of brilliance this postseason, but both have zero experience when it comes to the Stanley Cup Final. The biggest difference is on defense. That’s where I think the Sharks will win the series. San Jose is loaded with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and company. The Pens, who area already without Trevor Daley, have Kris Letang, but the drop-off is significant after that.

Just Flip A Coin: Penguins in 6