By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — The extra digit would have been nice, for certain. Ryan Miller’s career win total still ends in the tens column after Friday’s 3-2 heartbreaker to Boston, a game in which the host Sabres imploded by squelching a 2-0 third-period lead.
Sure, his 100th victory will be nothing but a milestone when he finally gets it, but Miller deserved it on a night like Friday for a simple reason — it is now, has been for years, and will for the foreseeable future be about the Sabres’ franchise goalie.
And Friday would have been the perfect time for Miller to reflect — it could have been the win that pushed the Sabres above the notorious dotted line that separates playoff teams from those who get early summer vacation.
Instead, his teammates again provided a shining example of how they rely too heavily on him. All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell uncharacteristically gave the puck away twice in his own zone, both costly turnovers that forced Miller to make big saves. And Toni Lydman gave the visitors a great chance in the final seconds of overtime that just missed. Lydman has made a habit this season of inopportune gaffes, often hoping that Miller can bail him out.
When Miller is good, like he was in the first and much of the third periods on Friday, the Sabres are still a dangerous side. Buffalo had no business heading to the locker room at the first intermission with the lead. At one point, the shot board read 9-3 in favor of the visitors, but Miller, as he has consistently during the team’s recent climb, kept his team’s net clean.
But with a 2-0 lead and eighth place clearly in sight, Buffalo pulled out the prevent defense in the third, and drew the expected results. The Bruins had the period’s first 15 shots with the game on the line, and the HSBC crowd rightfully jeered Ales Kotalik when his 50-foot snapshot broke the string with less than three minutes left in regulation.
The Sabres let the visiting Bruins, who came into Friday’s contest with a 1-17-1 record when trailing after two periods, back into the game by waiting for Miller to make big saves while they lost assignments and ran around in their own zone.
In the locker room after the loss, Miller was as angry as you’d expect a leader to be. He let on that this was one he could have held on to, but that’s not the truth in any way, shape or form.
“It’s just unacceptable,” he said.
But Miller is the reason why Lindy Ruff’s team has jumped back to relevance, not an obstacle. He came into Friday at 5-0-0 with a goals against flirting with 1.50 in his last six starts and was pitching a shutout through the first two periods against the Bruins.
If the Sabres are to jump back into the playoff picture and make some noise in the first round or two — something certainly attainable in an Eastern Conference that’s packed tightly — they’ll have to do it with plenty of Miller’s help.
They can’t, as they proved again on Friday, have him do it alone.
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.