Title Reign

The Buffalo Sabres are one of those rare NHL clubs where the face of their franchise is not among the team’s forwards, or even defensemen, but rather, is their goaltender. Ryan Miller took the organization by storm in the first season following the lockout as he secured the starting goaltender position from Martin Biron and played an integral role in the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Ever since that season, Miller has been a leader of the Buffalo Sabres on and off the ice, especially once Chris Drury and Daniel Briere departed. He has easily been the most popular member of the team amongst the fans, and whenever there is talk of the Sabres outside of the city, he is almost always the first player mentioned.

Of course, that was mostly because the team itself lost much of its relevancy following its pair of Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Although Miller has consistently been a good goaltender since he became a mainstay in the NHL, he only elevated himself to the highest of tiers this latest season.

But even if it did not come as early in his career as he may have liked, he made it happen in the biggest way possible. Miller went from being primarily a star in Buffalo to being a national hockey icon- all inside barely eight months from 2009 to 2010. On one hand, he was lighting up the NHL with outstanding performances between the pipes night in and night out. Then he performed on an even bigger stage, the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where he stole the show for Team USA and led the youthful roster to a Silver Medal.

That would not be the last award he would win before the summer even closed out. On June 23rd in Las Vegas, Miller was named the 2010 Vezina Trophy Winner for best goaltender, becoming the third Buffalo Sabre to do so under the NHL’s present criteria for the award (instituted in 1982). He was also the winner of the NHL Foundation Player Award, the first American with that honor. It was the perfect way to end what was an occasionally bittersweet, but altogether incredible year, and it has left hockey fans asking one question; can he do it all again?

He cannot win another Olympic Medal for a few more years, but that is beyond his control. It also may be for the better, because the only thing Miller needs to focus on is his play for the Buffalo Sabres. Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, there was plenty of concern as to if Miller would come back from the Games in one piece. While he hardly broke down in his return to the NHL, it is not difficult to believe that he was running out of steam down the stretch.

Even if he inexplicably had been 100% going into April, it still stands that Miller has a far less daunting task ahead of him for the 2010-2011 season. Without the Olympics halting the NHL campaign, he will not have to worry about either a multi-week layoff or a multi-week workload where he is fending off the very best squads in the world. It must have been particularly taxing on him with the Olympic Games and the NHL Playoffs only being separated by about six weeks. Come next spring and, hopefully, next year’s playoffs, Miller will be much fresher when playing for the Sabres.

He has several dozen regular season games to get through before that point, but there is little reason to think that he will go through a Vezina hangover this winter. The outstanding play that Miller displayed last season has been in the making for years since he cemented himself as a starter in the league. From 2005 to 2008 he played in more regular season games with each passing year, which allowed him to gradually become acclimated to starting 60+ games a season.

Only the best goaltenders in the NHL can handle that kind of test, and Miller struggled in the face of it at times, notably in the 2007-2008 season. However, like any great athlete, he preserved and worked harder to make sure he could one day meet the challenge. As we found out, he is now more than capable of doing so, and at only 30 years old, it might just be the start of things for him.

Age is an interesting aspect of the NHL, with numerous rookies that come into the league as early as 18 or 19 years old. The NHL, and hockey in general, is also different from other sports in that its athletes often play well into their 30s and even 40s, in some cases. It is common to find that an NHLer will be playing just as well at age 35 than he did when he was 25.

The goaltender position displays this situation better than any other. Many notable goalies from the past two decades played their best when they were in their 30s. Martin Brodeur always comes to mind for this topic, but other examples include Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, Evgeni Nabokov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Patrick Roy, Tomas Vokoun, among many others. In fact, all three of 2010’s Vezina Candidates- Miller, Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov- were 30 years of age or older.

That they see very little physical contact must play into why goaltenders can keep playing for so long, but there definitely is more to it. It is one of the trickiest roles in all of sports, one that takes years of practice to truly understand.

To do so at the highest level of competition in the NHL means that there is a lot to learn, perhaps too much to be at your best when you are only in your 20s. It is also a position that asks you to be a leader, even if you are not the team captain. Miller has grown up in front of us since first becoming a starter with the team; he is not that same young man with the long hair that made many fans refer to him as “Jesus”.

Miller is now a veteran of the game, and he has handled himself exceptionally while becoming the face of the Buffalo Sabres franchise. He has proved that he can be a strong leader no matter what team he commands, whether it is an Olympic squad, or simply the boys in blue and gold. If any active goaltender has a legitimate shot at repeating as a Vezina Trophy Winner, it is Buffalo’s favorite in net.

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