ST. LOUIS -- Manning the pipes for the first time with a team other than the Buffalo Sabres, goalie Ryan Miller was put in a precarious position by his new team.
Not once, but twice.
Winning games in the NHL normally is built on teams scoring first; the records speak for themselves. But in Miller's first two starts with the St. Louis Blues, he was faced with a 2-0 deficit each time.
If there's one character trait the Blues have learned, and will continue to grasp with the 33-year-old in goal, it's Miller's low-key presence.
So when the situation arises where the Blues have to play catch-up hockey, the message always will be the same from Miller: Fear not.
"He's a terrific goalie," Blues left wing Alexander Steen said of Miller, who is 4-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .933 save percentage since joining the Blues. "You can tell in practice he's very sound, he's composed. Nothing really rattles him. Our play is a reflection of him. He's stuck with it and kept playing."
However, that success never translated to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. General Manager Doug Armstrong jumped into a high-stakes poker game near the NHL Trade Deadline. He went "all-in" and got the one player he was interested in, acquiring Miller along with forward Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres, a trade Armstrong said, "makes us five, six percent better."
It's a small increment, but Armstrong felt the Blues, who will go for their sixth straight win Tuesday when they host the Dallas Stars, didn't need a major overhaul. They needed something to elevate them slightly.
The Blues obviously have found a new level of confidence knowing who is in net. Not to say it wasn't there before, but with Miller there's a certain aura of calmness from a player that grew up watching his cousin Kevin Miller play for the Blues and idolizing former Blues goalie Curtis Joseph.
"It seems like [Miller] never is panicking in the net," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "It's like he's always right there on every save. He gloves the puck so calmly and covers it so calmly. It's nice to see that confidence in him and that poise."
Also the mild-mannered influence of Miller should give the Blues' defensemen the confidence to make an extra play or get creative without having to worry about what happens if there's a mistake.
"I don't want to compare him to anybody necessarily, but with him it just exudes a quiet, confident, calm feeling," defenseman Ian Cole said of Miller. "He happens to make unbelievable saves, but he makes saves he's supposed to make. He's obviously very calm, very confident in the net and that's something that really helps us out as [defensemen] for sure and it'll only get better as the chemistry grows and as the team continues to grow and get better. It'll help him out too."
Miller, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, understands why he's here. He knows he's been thrust into the spotlight after a move from worst to first. Miller is ready to challenge for the top prize.
"To have an opportunity to play at a high level or to play for a championship, you're going to have a lot of people looking in your direction," Miller said. "If you don't want that scrutiny don't play for the highest prizes. That's kind of the attitude I'm trying to take. It's a little bit getting used to this little shift here this year. I'm trying to quickly catch up to the mindset these guys have because it's a great attitude. I'm just trying to fall in line and blend in as well with this team because they have a good thing going.
"But it's nice to see [those comeback wins]. We've gotten in a hole [the first] two games here and had the ability to climb out. It's good to see that they can win that way. It's not always going to be pretty [and] it's not always going to go your way every night. It's good to see determination and character. You see confidence in these guys. You know they're going to go out there and play the game. You can see as they start to take over games, you can almost see when that happens. It's pretty cool."
Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock understands the nature of the business, but when he hears fans or members of the media tell him the Blues are going for it now with the trade for Miller and Ott, he laughs that notion off.
"I get a kick out of people saying, 'You guys are loading up looking for a run,'" Hitchcock said. "We're loading up for the next five years. We're not loading up for the next five days or five weeks or five months. We're loading up for the next five years. I think all of us are hopeful that Ryan comes and stays with us, but regardless we're in the winning business right now and we think our players that everybody's watched grow and mature and gone through really tough times here are in a position where they've got the combination of maturity and experience necessary to win. It might happen, it might not, but we're going to stay in this window for a few years here. [Miller] and Steve really add to the window.
"I think at this time of year you cannot get enough professional players, players who have a professional way about them that rubs off when it's at its most critical stage. Ryan is a winner, Ott's a winner, and we're adding them to a group of players that's learning how to win right now. It's a good mix for us, but this is a mix we're hopeful for long-term also, not just two months. We think we've got good people coming into the organization and we've already got a lot of good people here right now."
Captain David Backes saw Miller's influence firsthand at the past two Winter Olympics as teammates for the United States teams. It was a no-brainer in the St. Louis locker room to add a player with Miller's pedigree.
"His work ethic, his focus, his love of goaltending, it's out of this world," Backes said of Miller. "... His head's in it, he's trying to find ways to improve his style and he's over 30 and been a great goalie in this League for a long time and he's still trying to get better. That sets a good example for everyone else. It shows his desire to win and try to help us as a team."
Armstrong said when he acquired Miller that he was the only goalie on the market that he considered replacing Halak with. Now it's up to Miller to help elevate the Blues from being a team that just makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So far so good as the Blues remain undefeated in five games since Miller and Ott joined the team.
"It's a great opportunity to step into a team that has confidence, feels good about itself," Miller said. "They're playing great hockey and we're just looking for our chance to contribute and hopefully do some good things here.
"I really enjoy stopping the puck and going out and competing. I think it's been a good approach that I'm going to try and bring here to St. Louis. I'm just going to try and deal with the pressure I have in other situations. I'm just going to calmly approach the game. I think that's something that benefits me and benefits my teammates."
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