By Bill Hoppe
Ryan Miller’s aware of the blistering criticism. He knows the Sabres’ toughness has been questioned for days, ever since Boston’s Milan Lucic steamrolled him. His teammates never responded to the lethal open-ice hit, which concussed the goalie and ignited a firestorm.
The Sabres’ inaction Saturday instantly earned them a reputation throughout the NHL. They’ve been called “gutless,” “soft” and other embarrassing names.
If they don’t respond to the sight of their woozy franchise goalie laid out, his mask knocked off from the 6-foot-3, 228-pound winger’s impact, what will they defend?
Still, “these guys in here have my back,” Miller said Tuesday, his first public comments since he called Lucic a “piece of (expletive)” twice following Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Bruins.
“People were talking about how these guys don’t have my back,” Miller said inside the First Niagara Center dressing room. “My whole job is to help these guys and be there for them, and they’re there for me. I’m disappointed in the direction that started to take.
“I’ve been with a lot of these guys for a really long time. For one incident and one tough stretch of hockey to start to become what it was I think is unfair to me and I think is unfair to the guys in here.”
Miller called the hit an “anomaly” and said the Sabres are “prepared for anything.”
“If that exact thing happens again, I’m sure there will be a very different reaction,” Miller said. “I try to have their back, I trust they have mine. So that’s the end of that one.”
Miller appreciates his teammates’ regret over the incident. Following the game, Paul Gaustad and Tyler Myers, two players on the ice, acknowledged they should’ve done more.
“I appreciate that they want to do more,” said Miller, who didn’t think a “donnybrook” needed to erupt. “But, I mean, what can you really do? Are you going to get a suspension yourself? Lucic is a tough guy. What are you going to do? Try to hack him, spear him, cheap-shot him. You’re no better than he is.
“We’ll play tough, hard-nosed hockey, and we’ll have five more chances to play them. It’s not about open season; it’s about playing the game the right way and playing it hard.”
Expect the Sabres to showcase more grit when the Bruins visit next Wednesday.
Coach Lindy Ruff clearly addressed the passive response with his team Sunday in Montreal, a day before the Sabres rallied to down the Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout.
Other than Miller, no one wanted to discuss the issue Tuesday.
“I’m case closed on it,” said Ruff, who was criticized by NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan for saying it was “open season” on goalies. “I said my piece.”
Sabres captain Jason Pominville added: “Obviously, we talked about it after the game, about how we just wanted to move on. I mean, we’ve answered all these questions before.”
It’s easy to forget, but the Sabres have won five of their last six entering tonight’s home tilt against the New Jersey Devils. Goalie Jhonas Enroth has four of the wins.
When Miller plays again is unknown. The 31-year-old’s experiencing headaches. He said he has “concussion symptoms” and a “little bit of whiplash.” Two cases aren’t always alike, but Toronto goalie James Reimer hasn’t played since suffering whiplash Oct. 22.
“Not as well as I’d like to be,” Miller said about his health. “Considering I’m just trying to get through where my neck is pretty sore, I’m trying to figure out if that’s more a source of headaches.”
Miller, who also suffered a concussion in March, felt fine during the first period Saturday. Lucic leveled him with 6:50 left. In the second, however, his head started “really hurting” and he felt “extreme tiredness.” He left after 40 minutes.
“Last year, I thought I had a very simple get-your-bell rung, and I missed five games,” Miller said. “This, I don’t know how to put a timeline on it, but I’m encouraged that my neck feels better.”
The Sabres, like most other teams, are usually coy with injuries, even obvious ones, labeling them “upper” or “lower.”
Why did they come out and say Miller had a concussion? They wanted the league to suspend Lucic, which it didn’t. His only punishment was a minor charging penalty.
“It didn’t quite work out the way we thought it could,” Miller said. “I’m definitely disappointed in that. You just move forward.”
Lucic has contended he couldn’t get out of the way as the two chased down a loose puck in the left circle, which rankles Miller.
“I was setting up for a breakaway. He mishandled the puck,” Miller said. “I think he was mad he lost the puck. I’ve heard what he has to say. Do I buy it? I think he said what he had to say to avoid being suspended. I think it’s the NHL, man. The guy can skate. He can stop, he can turn, he can pick his head up.”
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier brought up goalie protection at the NHL GM meetings Tuesday in Toronto. He was unavailable for comment.