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?)

The Buzzer: Marchessault leads Golden Knights; Boeser injures foot

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Player of the Night: Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

Marchessault took over the Vegas scoring lead with a big night during a 5-2 win over his old team, the Florida Panthers. The Golden Knights scored four unanswered goals after falling behind 2-0 early in the first period, and Marchessault played a big part by assisting on the tying and go-ahead goals and then potting the empty-netter to seal things. He now has 29 points on the season.

Reilly Smith, another ex-Panther, chipped in a pair of assists, including one on Marchessault’s goal to ice things for Gerard Gallant’s side. Vegas is now 13-2-1 at home.

Highlight of the Night:

Patrik Laine scored his team-leading 16th of the season for the Winnipeg Jets, and it was beautiful.

MISC:

Patrick Kane scored twice and Corey Crawford made 27 saves as the Chicago Blackhawks downed the Minnesota Wild 4-1 for their fifth win in a row. Kane now has seven points in his last four games. He’s one goal away from 300 for his career and now sits fifth all-time in Blackhawks history.

• Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 24 shots he faced and recorded his eighth career shutout during a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Blues. Adam Lowry, Laine, Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey provided the goals as the Jets split their home-and-home with the Blues.

Sam Bennett had four points and Mark Jankowski recorded three as the Calgary Flames drubbed the Vancouver Canucks 6-1. Mark Giordano added a pair of goals and David Rittich stopped 16 of 17 shots he faced for his third career NHL victory.

• The Canucks and Panthers weren’t too fond of the third period Sunday night. Vancouver was outshot 19-4 while Florida mustered only two shots on goal while allowing 18 over the final 20 minutes.

• Oh no. Brock Boeser left the game early in the second period after blocking a Mark Giordano shot. Canucks head coach Travis Green did not have an update after the game. This is not good.

Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche will miss two games after being suspended for boarding Vladislav Namestnikov of the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night.

• Congrats, Erik Karlsson. It’s a boy!

Our hearts exploded with that puck. We can’t wait to meet you baby BOY 💙

A post shared by Melinda Karlsson (@mel.karlsson) on

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Winnipeg 4, St. Louis 0
Chicago 4, Minnesota 1
Calgary 6, Vancouver 1
Vegas 5, Florida 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

Canucks’ Brock Boeser suffers foot injury after blocking shot (Video)

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As the Vancouver Canucks transition their roster and let the kids take over, Brock Boeser has been a real bright spot this season. Well, right now fans are holding their collective breaths hoping that the Calder Trophy candidate isn’t too seriously hurt after blocking a Mark Giordano shot early in the second period Sunday night.

Did you catch that Jim Benning reaction?

Sportsnet

Yup, us too, Jim.

Boeser, who leads the Canucks and all NHL rookies in scoring with 17 goals and 30 points, was ruled out for the rest of the night a short while later with a foot injury.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s all three members of the Canucks’ BBB line that are currently injured. Bo Horvat is out until January with a foot injury and Sven Baertschi has a similar timeline after fracturing his jaw.

Depending on the severity of the injury could also impact some of Boeser’s potential bonuses in his rookie season. Ryan Biech of The Athletic had a great breakdown on Friday about how much the Vancouver stands to earn this season should he hit certain totals in specific categories. Hopefully this doesn’t keep him out long. The Calder race is better with him a part of it.

UPDATE: Canucks head coach didn’t have an update on Boeser after the game.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Erik Johnson to sit two games for Avalanche after suspension

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It was pretty clear that after receving a slashing minor, boarding major and game misconduct all in the span of about three seconds, Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche still had some punishment coming to him.

And so on Sunday night the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced a two-game ban for the veteran defenseman after he boarded Vladislav Namestnikov Saturday night in Colorado.

As detailed in the video, Johnson knows that Namestnikov has already fired his shot on goal and the Tampa Bay Lightning forward isn’t expecting to be shoved like that after his scoring attempt. That, and how far he was from the boards make it all especially dangerous. Fortunately, Namestnikov was able to remain in the game.

“Dangerous play. You just hold your breath on those. Got a little fortunate with Vladdy, obviously didn’t get as fortunate with Callahan,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, referring to Ryan Callahan‘s injury after an awkward collision with Oliver Ekman-Larsson last week.

Johnson will lose out on $64,516.12, which goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Is Alex Ovechkin clutch?

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If you get into a bar argument with a sports fan about Alex Ovechkin, there’s a strong chance that at least one person will argue that the Washington Capitals superstar is “not clutch.”

It’s easy to compile such an argument, whether it’s fair or not. The Capitals won three Presidents’ Trophies in the Ovechkin era, yet they’ve never gotten to a third round with him on their roster. His Olympic struggles are both dramatic and well-documented.

That said, if you extract team successes and failures from the picture – which is difficult for many to do, that’s true – it gets tougher to deny that there’s some “clutchness” there, unless you just start to wrestle with whether “clutch” is even a real thing or not.

(Allow me to not open that pandora’s box.)

Last night, Alex Ovechkin scored his 21st overtime goal, adding to an NHL record he already owned. In the process, he came that much closer to 100 career game-winners in the regular season.

Here’s the goal itself:

As you can see, Ovechkin is one GWG away from joining a club of players who’ve scored at least 100; he’d be the eighth person to do so. It might not take him long to pass Jarome Iginla, and depending upon how his twilight years go, Patrick Marleau.

It’s plausible that Ovechkin may finish his career on the top of that list, though he might fall short of passing kindred spirit/guy he once clobbered in initial play Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr is a kindred spirit because, while he’s currently in the Teemu Selanne phase of his career as an ageless wonder loved by just about any fan interested in the game, number 68 was once a frequent scapegoat in his own right. Plenty of people questioned his character and work ethic, at times to the point of things getting cartoonish. Sometimes stars like these need to go through that period before people embrace them like they always should have.

And the more you look into things, it’s clear that a lot of fans should drop the disdain and enjoy just how special Ovechkin is.

Consider this: Ovechkin is just 32, yet Hockey Reference’s listings show that he’s been in the top-10 in game-winning goals in 10 seasons. Ovechkin led the league in that category three times and was in the top five on seven occasions.

For a guy who takes a beating for not lifting the Stanley Cup (yet?), Ovechkin shows up in the playoffs, too.

During his career, Ovechkin has scored 46 goals and 90 points in 97 career postseason games, close to a point-per-contest. Just about every player sees a dip in regular season versus playoff numbers – it’s the nature of the beast with checking tighter and every goal mattering much more – so being able to generate offense that often sure indicates some “clutchness” to me.

At some point, you just have to tip your cap to a great player, and maybe stop frowning and enjoy his boisterous celebrations and once-in-a-lifetime scoring skills. You might get a chance to do that again soon, as Ovechkin sits at 581 goals. He might just hit the 600 mark in 2017-18, joining 19 other NHL players to cross that barrier.

This post isn’t meant to imply that Ovechkin is totally flawless and it’s unlikely that a mountain of milestones will move his harshest critics.

Then again, if listing some of these resounding accomplishments helps even a few extra hockey fans enjoy a rare talent, it’s well worth it. At 32, Ovechkin could really rack up numbers for a long time, but his window could close as a true goal-scoring phenom.

It wouldn’t be very clutch to come around to Ovechkin once his best days are all behind him, now would it?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.