By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — You hope your goalie can steal you one in a seven-game series. Looking at the Sabres’ 3-0 matinee victory in which Ryan Miller made 24 saves, you’d assume this was the one.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Sabres played one of their best games of the season — limiting second shots, choosing plays along the boards rather than up the middle, and getting little guys to outbattle bigger ones — in taking back command of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal at HSBC Arena on Sunday.
Ken Hitchcock put it best:
“Their tenacity controlled this game.”
To put it bluntly, the Sabres stole one for Miller.
To borrow a line from Billy Packer, after R.J. Umberger’s softy in Game 4, the Sabres seemed more determined to keep Philly from getting any good looks.
Other than a shot that hit the shaft of Miller’s stick, he wasn’t forced to make a spectacular save. By the time he had to make even a significant one, the Sabres had already peppered Robert Esche with 14 shots and taken a 1-0 lead.
Granted, the bounces were bad in Philly. Pucks deflected differently, seemingly finding black and orange jerseys, and consequently, the back of the Sabres’ net.
But Umberger’s goal could have been devastating. It could have forced Miller into a shell that Rochester American fans saw in playoffs past.
It could have taken the hard work of a series — and season — and thrown it into the Niagara.
Instead, guys like Brian Campbell and Dmitri Kalinin started doing more than getting in the way by, um, getting in the way. Each had a pair of blocked shots. Tim Connolly, the guy we used to joke about, was soft as custard, led the team with three.
Lindy Ruff knew it. The Sabres played a patented Ruff-style game — making good decisions on defensive pinches and working hard down low to keep the puck in the opposition’s zone. It’s the same game plan the team used in running to the Cup final in ‘99.
And despite the way you’ve allowed his legend to grow in your mind, that goalie needed the system to steal him one once in a while too.
“Our discipline got away from us in Game 4,” Ruff said. “But (Sunday) was as good a game as I’ve seen us put together.”
Miller knew the bounces were better. He joked about the one that hit his shaft and another that went off the post.
“I was thinking, ‘now there we go,’ We definitely got some bounces tonight,” he said.
He also said he felt a part of the action, even if the Flyers could only manage three shots in the first 20 minutes. And he added that even though he didn’t face the barrage he met in the Wachovia Center, the shutout was just as hard as any other.
“I don’t know if there’s too many easy ones,” he said. “It was a quick turnaround on the low-to-high. Forgiving yourself is a big part of playing hockey in the playoffs.
“And I just wanted the guys to know I was there for them.”
Maybe so. But it was actually the guys who were there for Miller.