A little more than three months from now, under vastly different circumstances and far brighter lights, a performance like the one Ryan Miller turned in Monday night will be cause for Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke to raise his arms and crack a smile.
But not on this night. Not even close.
The projected starter for the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team in February, Miller continued his brilliant play this season against Burke's Leafs Monday night, turning aside all 38 shots in a gritty 3-0 road win for the Buffalo Sabres. And instead of a smile, the architect of that U.S. team wore a frown out of the Air Canada Centre press box as his still struggling team lost in regulation for the first time in its past six games.
"I hope he plays like this in February," said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who will coach Miller and the American entry at the Games. "We should have had the lead at some point, but you've got to give him credit - he made the saves. Sometimes our shot selection wasn't good enough to beat a goalie like that."
While the Leafs may have been accused of making more than one visiting goaltender look good this season, Miller hardly needed a hand in this one. The lanky 29-year-old improved on his NHL-leading numbers with a 1.84 goals-against average and .937 save percentage - an impeccable statline that serve as an eerie reminder of former Sabres star Dominik Hasek's work in the Buffalo crease - and was spectacular in the early going with 28 saves in the first two periods.
"Miller's stolen two games for them against us," said Leafs centre Matt Stajan, referencing Toronto's 3-2 overtime loss in Buffalo in October. "I don't know what it is, maybe his U.S. team and coaches are on our side and he wants to prove something.
"He's one of the best in the world, that's for sure."
Leading the way on the scoresheet for the Sabres, meanwhile, was a trio of unlikely candidates.
After a tight-checking opening 33 minutes, checking winger Tim Kennedy got on board first with his second goal of the season, batting a loose puck deep into the crease that Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson kicked into the goal.
The Sabres then extended their lead to two 20 seconds into the third when defenceman Henrik Tallinder floated a point shot through traffic that beat a screened Gustavsson high for his first of the season.
Winger Jochen Hecht closed out the scoring with the nail in the coffin, potting just his fourth goal in his 24th game this season midway through the third period on a long, high shot.
One of the Eastern Conference's top teams after a red-hot 12-4-1 start, Buffalo has been riding both its strong goaltending and the emergence of 6-foot-8 rookie blueliner Tyler Myers, who again played big minutes Monday night on the Sabres' top pairing with Tallinder.
With Monday night's win, Buffalo regained the Northeast Division lead, moving a point over the Boston Bruins. Toronto, meanwhile, has yet to win a game within the division heading into Tuesday night's matchup with the Montreal Canadiens.
While the Olympics were on the tips of everyone's tongues with so many of the key players in attendance, Miller played down the fact the U.S. brass would be watching him closely.
"Brian Burke is everywhere," he joked before the game. "It doesn't matter - there are so many TVs and the internet and [media]reporting. Everybody knows what kind of game you played that night, it makes no difference. We're in his building - that just means he's going to be in the GM box, that's it."
Miller offered a similar refrain after the win.
"I'm glad I can perform well in this rink, but I'm not getting geared up more [for the Olympic year]" he said. "[Burke's]not skating against me, so I try not to focus on it."
Even so, the close quarters allowed for him to make quite an impression in person, frustrating Burke and Wilson the way they hope he will against the Canadians, Russians and Swedes in a tournament few give a young American team much chance in.
Not that that was much consolation for the Leafs on this night.
NOTES Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenceman Carl Gunnarsson left the game late in the second period with what appeared to be a shoulder or arm injury and did not return after he was hit awkwardly along the end boards. … Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller noted that there might be an interesting dynamic at the Olympics in February given he'll play for the American team while his long-time coach, Lindy Ruff, serves as an assistant with the Canadians. "I'm sure Lindy will maybe sneak a few things in there where he's been watching me so long [and knows my weaknesses] That's the fun part of these tournaments." … Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby and centre Rickard Wallin spent yet another game as healthy scratches, while blueliner Jeff Finger continues to nurse a lower body injury. … Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said he had no problem with centre Mikhail Grabovski's lack of goal production this season (four goals in 25 games) because his play has allowed linemate Niklas Hagman to light it up as of late. Hagman was named the NHL's third star for the previous week yesterday after scoring five goals in three games.
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