ST. LOUIS – On multiple occasions, Lindy Ruff has experienced when goaltender Ryan Miller played above and beyond great to steal a game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ruff, now the Dallas Stars coach, coached Miller while the two were with the Buffalo Sabres for 10 seasons. They paired for some great postseason runs together.
"I still look back when we were heavy underdogs against Ottawa [in 2005-06], and they were one of the best teams in the League," Ruff said of the Senators, who were the top seed in the Eastern Conference. "We ended up winning that series [four games to one]. Ryan played a huge part in it.
"You can be a strong enough team sometimes to overcome average goaltending. I don't think at that time we were, but I thought he gave us a lot of confidence. And then the rest of the way, we knew we were going to get key saves. Our team really played well after that."
The Sabres fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in seven games during the Eastern Conference Final, but it wasn't for a lack of goaltending. There were five one-goal games in that series, including two that went to overtime.
This is why St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, although not necessarily in search of goaltending for his team, couldn't pass on the opportunity to acquire arguably the best goalie available at the NHL Trade Deadline.
"It makes us a little better," Armstrong said when he made the trade. "If it wasn't Ryan Miller, I was very content with the goaltending tandem that we had going into the playoffs."
But, Miller’s pedigree far outstrips the one possessed by either of those goalies.
"[Miller]'s played in plenty of pressure-cooked opportunities," Ruff said. "He played in the gold-medal game in Vancouver [for the United States in 2010], [went] deep into the playoffs with Buffalo and won some playoff series. He knows what it takes. He knows [how] to make key saves at key times and, even more than that, not letting in that goal that hurts you. He's fought those wars, he's been there; he's got that experience. I think he's a heck of a goaltender."
Ruff sung the praises of Miller to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock when the two were assistant coaches for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which concluded right before the trade deadline.
"You don't play [against] him that much; I really didn't know much about his game," Hitchcock said of Miller. "I talked to Lindy quite a bit about him and Lindy said he's really competitive and when we talked to the [St. Louis] players that played in Sochi with him [David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk], they said he never gives up on a puck. They say he's a real competitive guy.
"We kind of relied a lot on Lindy's information and then, obviously, the guys that played with him in Sochi. From a compete standpoint, that's what we were wondering, his practice habits and everything like that and they just said it's world-class. You see a guy that's got that quality and I think, quite frankly, that's why him and Brian are such a good mix because Elliott's the same way."
Miller went from the worst team in the League in Buffalo to one of the best in the Blues, and the adjustment period initially wasn't as easy and clean as one might have expected.
To go from a franchise that was used to playing one way and suddenly change two-thirds of the way through the season was a stern challenge. With the struggling Sabres, who were using several untested players, Miller faced an average of 35 shots per game. The difference in St. Louis was jarring. Halak, before his departure, was facing an average of 10 shots fewer in the stingy system used by the Blues.
"It's our style of play, not defensemen. Systems are based on what they want, who takes the outside shot," Hitchcock said. "We block them all or we want to block them all. Other teams say the goalie takes it. The goalie on other teams can play up higher in the zone. Everybody folds to the rebound, whereas we want to block that shot.
"This has been a difficult challenge for him, and it usually takes about 30 days. ... He looks like he's more and more comfortable playing the way we want him to with the way we play in front of him. It's much easier for the goalie to adjust than for us to adjust. We've been playing this way for three years now and I think he's made a nice adjustment."
Miller, 33, has adapted well, though both he and the team has struggled to the finish line. The Blues lost the final six games of the season, and Miller started five of them. He allowed 18 goals in the five losses.
He is still dealing with how to handle the inactivity, at times, around his goal, which was an uncommon occurrence with the Sabres.
"It's certainly been interesting as far as flow goes, but it just represents our team has the puck quite a bit and that's a good thing," Miller said. "You learn how to take the lulls in stride and protect the net as best as you can."
He also admits to needing to learn the voices of his teammates to facilitate on-ice communication, relaying a humorous story of how he was tricked into leaving the puck behind net instead of moving it forward by Toronto forward Jay McClement in a recent game.
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said despite glitches, the exchanges of the puck from Miller to the defenders is steadily improving.
"He's been putting us in pretty good situations," Pietrangelo said. "He's pretty good with the puck. If a goalie's going to have the puck as much as he has, we've got to make sure we have the right communication down or mistakes are going to happen."
Halak, who was brought in via trade from the Montreal Canadiens in 2011, never got a chance to prove his value in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Blues. In his only playoffs, in 2012, he sustained a high ankle sprain in Game 2 of the opening round against the San Jose Sharks. Elliott went the rest of the way, and Elliott was the guy last season when Halak was shelved because of lingering groin injuries.
Elliott was never able to outplay Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, and the Kings eliminated the Blues in each of the past two seasons. The Blues are hoping Miller can be at least an equalizer, if not a trump card this season.
"There's some saves there where you feel like you're about to put your head down because it's about to go in the net," Oshie said. "[Miller] seems so calm and just sticks the pad out and saves [the shot]. That's why we brought him here. I talked him up a little bit before he got here telling the boys he's a good goaltender."
Miller, 25-22 in four postseason appearances with the Sabres, is ready for his first postseason run with the Blues.
"I'm definitely trying to play the right way leading into playoffs," Miller said. "I just want to keep making the steps necessary. Hopefully we're all where we need to be. It doesn't have to be perfect hockey. It just needs to be the right kind of hockey. We have to have the attitude and belief in this locker room. We just have to keep building those little things.
"Your job is to just stop the puck, so every night is going to be a different experience. You just prepare to stop the puck. You just have to do your best to focus and be prepared. If you compete hard, you do all the right things and see where you end up with it. ... It's definitely the time of year you want to be playing well. These are some good challenges ahead."
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