After a bitter offseason where the Buffalo Sabres had to watch their two superstars in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury venture to different franchises, they received little comfort from the start of the 2007-2008 regular season.
The Sabres opened the season with a 6-4 loss at home to the New York Islanders. The very next day, they were once again defeated by the Islanders in a 3-2 contest on Long Island.
Buffalo did not see action again until five days later, and a tragedy occurred during the wait. That Monday, Ryan Miller’s 18-year-old cousin Matt Shoals, who had battled leukemia for two years before overcoming it, died due to complications with a bone-marrow transplant.
“He really did inspire me,” Miller said at the time, “He left the world, but he left having done great things.”
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Miller and the rest of his team played with tremendous passion in their next matchup. On October 11th, 2007 they provided a great tribute to young Matt, and a dazzling show for the fans in HSBC Arena that night when the Atlanta Thrashers rolled into town.
The Sabres scored exactly three minutes into the game while on the power play. Ales Kotalik notched his first goal on the season after camping to the side of the net and receiving a crisp pass from Tim Connolly.
Buffalo tallied twice more while on the power play in that first period. Tim Connolly scored his first of the season with a hard slapshot from afar, while Brian Campbell also added to the Sabres lead with a blistering slapshot.
The Sabres special teams continued to work wonders into the second period. When they found themselves in a short handed situation 12 minutes in, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville managed the opportunity to break loose out of the Buffalo end. They stormed into the Atlanta zone 2-on-1, and Pominville was able to beat Thrasher’s goaltender Kari Lehtonen for Buffalo’s fourth goal on the night.
Later, with less than three seconds remaining in the period, the Sabres added their fifth. After a loose puck came in front of the net on a shot from the point, Roy picked it up all alone and tossed it into the Atlanta net before Lehtonen even knew what had happened.
That goal ended Lehtonen’s night, who was pulled in favor of backup Johan Hedberg to start the third period. Prior to then, Atlanta put on a miserable showing with only eight shots on goal, none of which could beat a driven Miller. The Thrashers were stoned even while on a 5-on-3 power play, one of five different instances where they had an extra attacker in the first two periods.
Atlanta showed some semblance of grit in the third, where they out-shot the Sabres by a 12-8 margin, however Miller continued to fend off every puck that came his way.
Buffalo dealt one final blow with under 30 seconds to play when Daniel Paille earned his own power play goal. Similar to Kotalik’s initial tally, Paille stood at the side of the net before a pass came his way. When he took the puck, he had a wide open net before him which he took full advantage of.
Yet, after four power play goals and six goals in total, it was Miller’s 20 saves that stood out in the Sabres’ first win that season. It was the fifth shutout of his career, and perhaps remains his most memorable.
“For him to go through what he did wasn’t easy,” said coach Lindy Ruff, “It was a special night for him. I wanted to see him get the shutout.”
At the conclusion of the game Miller raised his goalie stick to salute the crowd. But most touching was when he lifted his mask, which his cousin Matt helped him design, towards the sky.
Over four years later, Miller still sports the words “Matt Man”, along with a bulldog caricature, on the back of his helmet in honor of Matt.