It’s Miller time for U.S. hockey


Ryan Miller watched the Turin Olympic hockey tournament from his couch with his family in East Lansing, Mich., when he paid attention at all.

“I just wanted to take a mental break from hockey,” he said, and who could blame him?

Miller might have been the best American goaltender in the NHL during the 2005-06 season, but he had suffered an early-season thumb injury and didn’t return to the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup until the day Team USA was announced. That was too late for team officials to feel comfortable including him on the roster.

That decision looked all the more unfortunate for all parties when Miller went on a tear before the Olympic break and emerged from his living room and his self-directed training routine to lead the Sabres to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.

With the Vancouver Games in his sights, Miller altered his training routine to enhance his stamina and flexibility. He was determined not to give the hockey gods even the flimsiest reason to consign him to the couch again, and he succeeded on the strength of a career-best season.

Miller, who made an unexpected relief appearance at Anaheim on Tuesday and is scheduled to start for the Sabres against the Kings tonight at Staples Center, leads the NHL with a 1.99 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. He also ranks second in shutouts, with five, and third in victories, with 27.

Despite facing an average of nearly 31 shots per game he has kept the low-budget, high-energy Sabres near the top of the East this season. That’s good preparation for what he likely will contend with as the expected No. 1 goalie for a young Olympic team that was picked with more regard for feistiness than finesse.

“I can see him in the Olympics just stonewalling those teams and winning the game, all those sudden-death games,” said Harry Neale, a former NHL coach who does commentary on Sabres’ broadcasts.

“For a goalie that’s as good as he is, he doesn’t seem to make many spectacular stops -- and that’s a compliment. He can anticipate shots and he’s a good skater. I’d hate to tell you how many games he either kept them alive until they got going or was way better than the guy at the other end.”

Miller, 29, will have to continue that mastery in Vancouver for the U.S. team to have any chance at a medal.

Canada will be favored -- and rightly so -- because of its depth at every position and home-ice advantage. Sweden, the defending gold medalist, will have a skillful and smooth-skating lineup. Russia’s top two lines will be scary-good.

The U.S., with only three players who have Olympic experience, will place a heavy burden on the not-very-muscular shoulders of Miller, who stands a slender 6 feet 2 and about 170 pounds and admittedly has trouble keeping weight on during the grueling NHL season.

But this is a challenge Miller has long sought and he’s ready.

“I wanted it,” he said, “and that’s the kind of thing where you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘You wanted it, you got it.’

“I enjoy the opportunity. It’s something I’ve been training for, for a long time. It’s kind of like I’ve been studying for it and this is a good chance to take the test. I really have been working and building my game to compete in these situations.”

He has prepared for this as meticulously as he gets ready for NHL games. “He’s got a book on everybody,” Neale said. “He’s smart.”

Miller was wise enough to change his training regimen the last two summers to focus on core muscles and his hips and back. That keeps him strong but flexible and enhances the agility that makes him one of the best skaters among his ponderous, pad-wearing brethren.

“I’m never going to be a body builder so I don’t really concern myself with that stuff, just range of motion,” he said.

“At this stage of the game I feel pretty good. I’m probably a little skinnier than I want to be but that’s about it.”

He has looked big in net this season.

“He’s been very good. There’s nothing else I can say,” Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff said.

Well, he could say what enables Miller to maintain his poise while seeing so many shots. The Sabres, as a team, have given up an average of 31.9 shots per game, among the most in the NHL.

“I think goaltenders deep down like action. They would rather have a 20-shot period than 5-3 or 6-4,” Ruff said. “I think it keeps their motor revving and gets them in the game. It’s not something the coaches like and I don’t think deep down that’s how you want your team to play, but at times goaltenders thrive on it.”

Miller said he doesn’t mind the workload.

“It kind of helps our style, honestly,” he said, adding that his teammates can pick up rebounds and begin a quick transition to offense.

“I don’t mind it as long as we have the support around me that I can commit to making the save.”

His commitment to being in prime shape for the Olympics has cut into his personal time, forcing him to give up hobbies and time with friends so he can preserve his energy.

“I’ve been passing on a lot of dinners. I’m surprised that people still actually ask me,” he said.

The important invitation came from the U.S. Olympic team a few weeks ago, and it was thoroughly deserved.