Leafs try to shake Miller jinx

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller watches a rebound as Toronto Maple Leafs centre Wayne Primeau...

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller watches a rebound as Toronto Maple Leafs centre Wayne Primeau (centre) gives chase around fallen Sabres defenceman Craig Rivet during NHL hockey action in Buffalo, on Friday, Dec. 18. (Adam Wiepert, REUTERS)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Ron Wilson has had his best men working on Project Miller, but seems no closer to a breakthrough.

The Buffalo Sabres goaltender is still one of the biggest obstacles to Toronto’s success within the Northeast Division and the greater NHL playoff picture. Miller is expected to go for his 21st career win against the Leafs tonight at the Air Canada Centre, with more Ws than against any other opponent and the most by any active goalie against Toronto. The Michigan native has been in for all eight consecutive wins over the Leafs since New Years’ Day 2009.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Miller is tied for 11th for most wins against the Leafs since 1967-68, but first among active goalies, with Martin Brodeur and Chris Osgood next with 17 each. Miller’s career won-loss mark is 166-93-1-27, bolstered by Friday’s 5-2 win over the Leafs in Buffalo.

“If there is a secret (to beating Miller), 28 other coaches besides me haven’t figured it out,” Wilson said yesterday at the MasterCard Centre. “He’s just having one of those years. He’s a very good goalie, he’s picked the right time to have a great year with the Olympics coming up.”

The mischievous Wilson even tried applying the needle to Miller’s coach, Lindy Ruff, wondering aloud why the Sabres switched to back-up Patrick Lalime to play the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Saturday, yet used their No. 1 on Friday to keep mashing “the lowly Leafs”.

As for the suggestion Miller gets more pumped for the Leafs because Wilson and general manager Brian Burke have identical roles selecting the U.S. Olympic team, Wilson quipped “(Miller) doesn’t have to audition, trust me.”

“But he’s not unbeatable,” Wilson added. “He’s lost seven games already this year. We just have to find a way as we did against the Bruins yesterday (a 2-0 win to halt Boston’s December domination of Toronto). It’s not a jinx, or a hex, it’s the fact that up to this point, they’ve been a better team than us. We just have to be persistent and get the job done.”

It’s not often that fourth liner Jamal Mayers would be asked to weigh in on this topic, but he’s one of the hottest Leafs since his switch to centre, producing three points in as many games.

“More than anything, we have to have traffic in front...we haven’t had enough,” Mayers said. “He’s going to make the first save, but we have to make it more difficult on him to make the second one and be a little bit more responsible defensively so that their defence can’t jump into the rush so much.”

Wilson was full of praise for his third line, too, with Wayne Primeau embracing an expanded role at centre, Lee Stempniak playing a good two-way game and Nikolai Kulemin justifying his presence after his scoring tailed off this season.

“Kulemin didn’t get a point (Saturday) but it was his best game by far,” Wilson observed. “He blocked shots, his stick was in the right spot and he was a good forechecker.

“We’ve asked him to be more physical, he’s a big body, he can handle it and now he’s more comfortable doing it.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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