BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Ryan Miller’s freshly designed red, white and blue goalie mask — with Uncle Sam on one side and a soaring bald eagle on the other – has arrived. The flights have long been booked for himself, his wife and father. And Miller has already arranged for his mother and sister to take care of the family dog over the next two weeks.
The U.S. goalie has done everything within his control in preparing to travel to Sochi for the start of the Winter Games.
“Yeah, getting a little anxious to get things underway,” Miller said.
What comes next is anybody’s guess for the player who became the face of U.S. hockey four years ago. Eager as Miller is for the opportunity to reprise the MVP role he played in leading the U.S. to a silver-medal finish in Vancouver, he concedes there is no guarantee he’ll get that shot in Russia.
Selected as one of three goalies along with Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, the Buffalo Sabres star is still awaiting word from U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, who has not yet revealed his plans on who will be the starter.
It’s a decision that won’t be based on sentiment, is all Bylsma would say before the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-1 win over Miller and the Sabres on Wednesday night.
That’s fine with Miller.
“I’m just preparing as if I’m going to play,” he said. “That way I’ll be ready no matter what.”
Miller then offered an amusing disclaimer when the topic of his MVP performance at Vancouver was broached.
“It’s kind of like law firms: It doesn’t guarantee any future payouts or verdicts or anything like that,” Miller said. “It’s an experience that I will always cherish. But I can’t stack it in the net behind me. It’s not going to deflect pucks away.”
Uncertain as his immediate future might be, including whether he’ll remain in Buffalo once his contract expires after this season, Miller is at least secure in knowing he’s not heading to Sochi on reputation alone.
The 33-year-old Miller instead earned his ticket the hard way by being the best player on the NHL’s worst team.
The Sabres are 15-33-8 entering their game at Ottawa on Thursday night, and their record bears little reflection on Miller.
At 14-22-3, Miller accounts for all but one of Buffalo’s victories, eight of which he’s earned in overtime or shootouts. What’s most impressive is Miller’s 92.3 save percentage, which ranks seventh among goalies with 30 or more starts.
Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan made clear how impressed he was with Miller in the midst of a two-month stretch in which he went 9-4-3.
“Yeah, out of this world, maybe,” Nolan said, last month.
Bylsma and the U.S. braintrust couldn’t help but notice Miller in making their final selections.
“He doesn’t have a lot of wins to go with how well he’s played,” Bylsma said. “He’s played really well in some difficult circumstances.”
And it’s difficult to overlook what Miller accomplished four years ago. Aside from going 5-1 and allowing eight goals in six games at Vancouver, Miller went on to earn the NHL’s Vezina Trophy that season.
Miller is no stranger to playing up to expectations, dating to his three seasons at Michigan State, where he set an NCAA record with 26 shutouts and won the 2001 Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player.
In 11 seasons in Buffalo, Miller holds the franchise record with 283 wins and 539 games played.
For Miller, the Vancouver Games were a validation.
“I thought it just kind of confirmed that I could play at a high level for a lot of people,” Miller said. “But I knew I could play that way.”
Sochi, by comparison, provides Miller a chance to take care of unfinished business.
Of the thousands of goals Miller has allowed since he first began playing net on the backyard rink outside the family home in East Lansing, Mich., the one that infamously stands out is Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime to clinch Canada’s 3-2 gold-medal victory.
Miller lets out a big sigh knowing he’ll have a tough time avoiding seeing replays of Crosby’s goal on TV.
“They’ll be probably replaying it for years to come,” he said. “You know, it’s one moment in a tournament and a defining moment. People like to reference that. But it is what it is. It went in.”
Four years later, he gets the opportunity to change the narrative and settle the score.
“You have to lose a game to get silver. You’re a breath away from gold. It can be a hard award,” Miller said. “It is a great tournament. But you want to be first. That’s what drives you.”