BUFFALO — Finally, after about three wretched months, Ryan Miller’s found a groove and started performing like an elite NHL goaltender again.
In his last four starts, the 31-year-old’s sporting a tight 1.18 goals against average and a gaudy .959 save percentage. Not coincidentally, the Sabres are 3-0-1 entering tonight’s contest against the Boston Bruins at the First Niagara Center.
Still, Miller’s enduring the toughest of his seven full big league campaigns. His overall numbers – 14-15-3, 2.88 and .905 – are bad.
He’s watched Milan Lucic get away with steamrolling him, suffered a scary concussion and been subjected to trade rumors as the Sabres have slipped to 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
So, with three days between games, Miller’s paused briefly to enjoy one of the lone bright spots this season, becoming the franchise’s all-time wins leader.
His strong 35-save effort Saturday in the Sabres’ 4-3 shootout triumph in New York over the Islanders earned Miller victory No. 235, moving him past the legendary Dominik Hasek.
Miller cherishes the milestone.
“Setting the team record is a source of pride for me,” Miller said Monday. “To be able to be here that long, contribute and be a part of the Sabres organization has been a dream fulfilled for me to play in the NHL.”
Sabres captain Jason Pominville said passing Hasek, a surefire NHL Hall of Famer, is “pretty impressive.”
“It’s well-deserved for him,” he said. “He’s a competitor. You get what you expect from him every night.”
Well, at least the past couple of weeks and most of October.
Miller hasn’t been his normal self other than those two stretches. He allowed three or more goals 18 times during a 23-start stretch from late October to late January, winning just seven times.
In today’s low-scoring NHL, giving up three goals usually means losing.
“Not everything’s going to go your way,” Miller said about the rough season he’s experienced. “It’s a lot like life. You’re going to have ups and downs, and how you handle those ups and downs is a big thing. If you’re going to sit there and wallow in it, you’re probably going to be a person that doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and get any satisfaction out of life.
“But if you can take the hard times and roll with it and find a way to enjoy your time and also better yourself, then you find your way through it and hopefully you get rewarded for it.”
Now, with his regular defense back, Miller looks in control again. Is this the best he’s felt since starting the season 4-1?
“I’m trying to get myself to that point,” Miller said. “There’s still a little bit higher level. I’m just trying to work on making what I’m going through right now … consistent. I feel like I’m reading the play pretty well. I do feel like my concentration, my focus has been a lot better than it was coming back in late November (from a concussion).
“I’m just trying to work on those real foundational-type things – just stay in shooting lanes and focus.”
Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said seeing “those two, three big saves a night” proves Miller’s on his game.
“That’s a big thing,” Leopold said. “When he’s in a zone, he ends up making those look easy. That’s Ryan’s game.”
Miller broke the record in 432 games. Hasek played 491 times with the Sabres, going 234-170-70 over nine seasons.
Of course, shootouts have helped Miller reach the mark quickly. There are no ties; every game has had a winner since 2005-06.
Miller’s 32-20 in shootouts and has one NHL tie. Hasek had 70 ties with the Sabres. Incredibly, Hasek won only two of 13 shootouts later in his career.
“For the way it’s written up I’ll appreciate it,” Miller said. “I’ve accumulated some wins here. It’s been a lot of fun to do it with this group of guys, this staff and these coaches. I’m not trying to draw any comparisons. I know there’s an asterisk next to it because Dom would’ve had his fair share of shootout wins. …
“I’m trying to enjoy it and take something positive and something nice from it because no matter how you cut it up it’s a nice accomplishment.”
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said Oilers coach Tom Renney, who took a puck in the head Monday morning and missed his team’s 6-3 loss in Toronto, texted Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who broke three ribs in a practice collision about an hour later.
“There’s a certain comfort amongst these coaches … so misery enjoys company,” he said.
Sabres winger Colin Stuart, out since tearing his MCL on Dec. 17, practiced Tuesday and should return “within a week.” It’s likely he’ll be sent to Rochester then.
Regier said winger Thomas Vanek (upper body) skated alone Tuesday and could return later this week.
In practice footage captured by WKBW, Ville Leino and Cody McCormick nearly fought after McCormick slashed Leino. Both downplayed the incident.