Miller builds toughness

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Ryan Miller never has had a problem stopping shots.

The Rochester American goalie led the American Hockey League in saves this season and became the first AHL goalie to win 40 or more games since Gerry Cheevers in 1964-65.

The problem for the 24-year-old Miller was what happened after the infrequent times he surrendered a bad goal.

His body would sag. His concentration would waver. His confidence would bolt.

"You could tell everything from his body language," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said.

Miller's career has more or less been a straight shot upward. He was cursed with a lack of failure and when it came, disguised as opportunity, it nearly ruined him.

With Martin Biron struggling and Mika Noronen injured, the Sabres tagged Miller as their starting goalie back in 2003-2004 when people actually played NHL hockey.

"We lost our first road game in Philadelphia, then we came back and opened against Detroit and nobody played well," Miller said. "I got sent down, got called back up and stunk again."

"That was a mistake," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said yesterday. "It wasn't what he did wrong, it was what we did wrong. We should have never put him in that situation."

Well, yes and no.

"That's where you learn a lot of lessons, falling on your face," Miller said. "A lot of people say it's tough to get over your demons and fight ghosts but if you don't learn to bounce back, what's going to happen when things don't go your way?"

If you're looking for someone, anyone, who profited because of the lockout, you might consider Ryan Miller.

His third AHL season has been by far his best. He notched a league-leading eight shutouts and posted a 2.45 goals-against average with a .922 save percentage.

More important than the numbers was the added veneer of mental toughness. After allowing a poor goal and another two middling ones on Sunday, Miller was airtight as the Amerks topped the Hamilton Bulldogs 4-3 to take a 3-0 series lead. They clinched the series last night.

"What you look for is growth," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said. "Ryan stopped it after three goals the other day. A year ago, I don't think he could have stopped it after five."

Miller grew up in East Lansing, Mich., and attended Michigan State as a third-generation Spartan hockey player. In 2001, Miller became only the second goalie to win the Hobey Baker Award as the best U.S. collegiate hockey player.

He is his own creation.

At 17, he made the pilgrimage to Quebec to a goalie camp run by Francois Allaire, the high priest of the butterfly.

"I don't think I've ever had so many people telling me I was doing so much wrong in my life," Miller said, "but it was a great learning experience."

Miller is quicker to his feet and a bit more active than is the fashion.

"I don't really know how I'd describe it," Rochester defenceman Jeff Jillson, a veteran of 138 NHL games, said. "All I know is that he stops the puck."

Where he will be doing it next year, of course, is an arresting question. Biron didn't play this year and his contract is up. Noronen played well back home in Finland. Miller not only delivered his best season in the best hockey league going, he got a year of new rules -- including fat blue lines and puckhandling restrictions --under his belt.

"Ryan has evolved," Cunneyworth said, "and I don't see him backsliding."

"When something goes wrong, the guys need you to be active and confident," Miller said, "not some guy who has rolled himself into a ball at the corner of the crease feeling sorry for himself."


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