The Canadiens host Buffalo on Tuesday and the Sabres are making their push for a berth in the playoffs. They’ve won 12 of their past 18 and have two more points for losses after regulation for 26 of a possible 36 points. They currently sit in 10th, four points out of eighth where Carolina currently resides. Most impressively, they’ve done it without top centre Derek Roy, out for the season after leg surgery in late December.
Despite that, the Sabres have had trouble holding leads during this streak, having blown two-goal leads three times, most recently against the Islanders, who skated away with a 7-6 OT win on Sunday. It was goalie Ryan Miller’s worst game of the season.
Miller has not been the world-class netminder this season we’ve come to expect. His save percentage of .909 is below last season’s .929. His GAA is 2.78 compared to last year’s 2.22 — a half-goal more per game. “This team isn’t good enough to make a run if Miller isn’t playing at a
high level,” wrote Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan on Monday.
“I’m not playing at the level I guess that was expected after last
season but I feel like I’m contributing and playing decent,” he said Monday (quoted by The
Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington). I obviously
want to improve and that’s the name of the game. You try to improve
every day and try to win every day.”
Last year’s Team USA Olympic star even uncharacteristically snapped at a Buffalo News reporter John Vogl (audio) after the Islanders game who merely asked Miller, “Did you feel OK?” Miller replied, “John, I feel fine. I don’t even know why you’re going down that line.
Do I feel fine? What does that mean? What are you implying?…I feel fine. Gimme a break.”
Having started 31 consecutive games, there is speculation that Miller is as exhausted as he is frustrated. In those 31 games, he’s 18-9-3, but with a 2.85 GAA and a sub-par .900 save percentage. This was supposed to be the year he got a bit more rest, with Patrick Lalime as his backup. But that plan didn’t materialize.
“It wasn’t quite what we set out to do,” Miller said Monday of his long active stretch. “But when I started the year with some injuries, it
kind of threw a wrench into that and Lindy wanted to get me rolling.
Then it kind of got a little bit long so we’re going to have to make a
plan to make sure that mentally and physically I’m where I need to be.”
So it’s possible that Lalime might be in goal against the Habs. Coach Lindy Ruff spoke at length during Monday’s practice with Lalime, but neither was disclosing the substance of their chat. Harrington speculates that would save Miller for Wednesday game against the Maple Leafs, a team against which Miller excels. He’s got more wins against the Leafs, 24, than any other team in the NHL.
While Sullivan has put the entire weight of the Sabres success on the goalie, right winger Drew Stafford has certainly done his part. Named the NHL’s second star of the week Monday, Stafford got his fourth hat trick of the season in the Islanders game and also had a hat trick against the Lightning last Tuesday. His six goals have come on his last six shots.
“Some of my shots, if you want to call them that, I was just kind of
parked in front of the net,” Stafford told Harrington. “You just hang around
the net and pucks are hanging around there. They were not exactly shots
per se. It’s a pretty good stat. I guess you guys have your stats.
That’s pretty cool. You don’t see that too often. Not sure I can keep it
going but I’ll do my best.”
Stafford leads the Sabres with 23 goals, 19 in his last 22 games, but has only 10 assists. He doesn’t have a goal against the Canadiens this season but
has played only 26 minutes against Montreal, missing one game entirely and parts of two others with injuries.
Thomas Vanek has also been hot for the Sabres. Their leading scorer with 22 goals and 26 assists, he has nine goals and 14 assists during the Sabres’ last 17 games.