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?)

Cody Eakin plays unlikely hero as Stars even series with Blues thanks to OT win

Dallas Stars' Cody Eakin, right, looks to pass as St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott defends during the third period of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference semifinals, Thursday, May 5, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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Needing a win to even the series with the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars didn’t get off to the greatest start Thursday.

On a rather embarrassing play in the first period of a crucial Game 4, the Stars were caught on the television feed clearly with six skaters on the ice, but still surrendered a breakaway goal on a stretch pass to a wide open Vladimir Tarasenko — 1-0 Blues. Again, not a great start for the Stars.

Sometimes in hockey, it’s apparently not always about how you start but how you finish. The Stars gained strength during the second period on goals from Radek Faksa and Patrick Sharp just 1:09 apart. Early in overtime, Cody Eakin scored his first goal of these playoffs to give the Stars a 3-2 win.

This series is now tied heading back to Dallas for Game 5. For the Blues, it’s a missed opportunity to put the high-flying Stars on the brink of elimination.

Eakin snapped a 17-game scoring drought that stretched into late-March of the regular season by going top shelf, short side of Blues goalie Brian Elliott just 2:58 into the extra period.

Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp each had two-point nights for Dallas, assisting on the game winning goal.

In a series billed as Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast is taking over for Penguins, Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The well-traveled defenseman filling in for his team’s most indispensable player scored the first goal. The seemingly ageless center closing in on his 40th birthday scored the second. And the winger who makes a living trying to create space for Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby delivered the overtime winner that brought the Penguins within one victory of a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the stars might be out in the NHL’s marquee playoff matchup. They’re just not the ones shining.

Pittsburgh’s 3-2 thriller over top-seeded Washington in Game 4 on Wednesday night did more than give the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also highlighted the depth the club has spent months cultivating around Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Trevor Daley skated more than 28 minutes and picked up his first postseason goal in more than two years while serving the ironman role typically filled by Letang, serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in Game 3. Matt Cullen, who at 39 has openly wondered if he wants to return in the fall, slipped behind the Washington defense to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Patric Hornqvist, who spends most of time suction-cupped to a spot in front of the opposing goaltender, pounced on a loose puck 2:34 into overtime and slammed it by Braden Holtby to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game playoff losing streak in games pushed beyond regulation.

Related: Trevor Daley  is ‘in a good place’ now 

Heady territory for guys considered mere supporting players when the second-ever playoff showdown between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin began last week.

“I think there’s a great chemistry amongst the team that we have right now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it’s a thrill.”

Washington coach Barry Trotz tried to downplay the hype between two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in the run-up to Game 1, stressing there were much more to the longtime rivals than their franchise cornerstones.

Trotz was more right than he knew, only it’s Pittsburgh’s role players who have pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. Cullen’s two points during the series equal Malkin’s output. Hornqvist has three points through four games, two more than Crosby, though the two-time MVP occupied Holtby’s attention just long enough that the goaltender couldn’t get in proper position to stop the Game 4 winner.

“(Hornqvist) does a lot of the thankless things that help this team be successful,” Sullivan said. “To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill.”

The Capitals powered their way to the NHL’s best record behind spectacular goaltending from Holtby, a league-leading 50 goals from Ovechkin and a potent power play. All three have taken a significant step back against Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie Matt Murray has been every bit Holtby’s equal, Ovechkin’s 21 shots have produced a single goal and Washington is just 1 for 12 with the man advantage.

Though John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson have tried to pick up the slack, the Capitals are now on the verge of succumbing to an all too familiar result in the spring.

Trotz pointed to Letang’s absence in Game 4 as an opportunity Washington needed to exploit. Instead, Daley patrolled the blue line and quarterbacked the power play in Letang’s stead while Justin Schultz – playing for the first time in more than two weeks – was solid in his return.

“The other guys were good, too,” Backstrom said. “I feel like they’re a good team. It’s not going to be easy.”

Especially playing a club getting contributions from all over, a far cry from the top-heavy roster that relied so heavily – usually too heavily – on Crosby and Malkin for production during recent postseason swoons.

It’s symbolic of the way Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt Pittsburgh since taking over in the summer of 2014 that neither Daley nor Schultz were around when the season began. Then again, they’re hardly alone. Only a handful of players remain from the group that skated off the ice following a Game 7 loss to New York in the second round two years ago, a series the Penguins had led 3-1.

That setback is still fresh in the mind of Crosby and the others who remain. At the same time, most of the guys who surround Crosby in the dressing room won’t carry that baggage into Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington. This is, in many ways, feels like a fresh start filled with fresh faces, even if some are less well-known than others.

“We’ve always found ways to get the job done,” Daley said. “That’s what this team’s been all about. We always found ways to get it done. We started it awhile ago and it’s continuing on.”

 

Report: Ducks interested in Travis Green for vacant head coaching job

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Travis Green seems to be gaining increased attention for available head coaching jobs in the NHL, and the Anaheim Ducks, who fired Bruce Boudreau after a first-round playoff loss, are reportedly interested.

That’s according to a report from Elliotte Friedman during Thursday’s broadcast of Game 4 between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars.

Green helped guide the Utica Comets, AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, to an appearance in the Calder Cup final a year ago. The Comets were, however, eliminated in the opening round of the post-season this year.

“I think I’m ready,” Green, who has spent the last three seasons in Utica, said recently. “Every job in the NHL is worth its weight in gold, and I would have 100 per cent interest at options with every team in the league. You hope all your qualities are enticing for one of them.”

Related: With four vacancies, the NHL  coaching carousel is ‘spinning out of control’ 

Video: The Stars had six skaters on the ice and still didn’t cover Tarasenko on breakaway goal

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Vladimir Tarasenko can be elusive to the opposition at five-on-five. Apparently that also applies to when the opposition has six skaters on the ice and their goalie still in the crease.

Tarasenko opened the scoring for the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 on Thursday, sneaking in behind the Stars defense for a breakaway goal on Kari Lehtonen. The Stars, by the way, had six skaters on the ice as the puck was turned over in the St. Louis zone.

Despite Dallas clearly having too many skaters, the play wasn’t blown down and Tarasenko found himself in the one-on-one situation. He made no mistake.

(Here’s a screen grab of the turnover inside the St. Louis end, leading to the breakaway. Six Dallas skaters.)

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