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Miller: "I wanted it pretty bad"

SOCHI, Russia -- Ryan Miller finally got his first action of the Olympics on Sunday. Miller played a near-flawless game as the U.S. beat an overmatched Slovenia team, 5-1. He was very close to his first shutout in nearly two years before Marcel Rodman scored with 17.6 seconds left.

Miller laughed when I asked him in the mixed zone how much he had wanted the shutout. He has the longest active shutout drought of 85 starts, dating back to a 3-0 win over Montreal on March 12, 2012.

"I wanted it pretty bad," said Miller, who had 17 saves. "That's just unfortunate there. I looked a little too far left and he hammered it."

Miller didn't face many demanding shots, though he stopped every tough one before Rodman's goal. The Slovenians play a fairly conservative game. They had a few offensive flurries and some decent scoring chances. But they fired quite a few wide or over the net. Miller, of course, played his angles well and was generally in the right postion to challenge the shooters. 

He admitted he had some butterflies in his first game. Coming off an emotional shootout win over the Russians, the Americans needed this game to win the A pool and earn an automatic bye into Wednesday semifinals. Miller wanted to be the primary reason the U.S. team didn't lose its focus.

"Yeah, I definitely had some nerves," Miller said. "It was an important game to ensure that we're at the top of our pool."

"I felt good. I haven't played in just over a week here, probably 11 or 12 days. So it was good to get back in a game. These guys play the kind of hockey where it's easy. You just set up for your one situation, your one passing option and the guys are coming back with sticks and tracking and they get the puck back.

"I like to be busy," Miller said. "I like to be in the game. There's not as many puck handles in this kind of rink. You want pucks heading your way a little bit. That's what I prefer. I got some pucks toward the net early on. I was telling myself, 'I came over here to contribute. This is my chance to contribute and help wrap up this pool and help the guys earn a break'. I did the best I could do."

U.S. coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't commit to a starting goaltender for Wednesday's quarterfinal. The U.S. won't learn its opponent until the end of prelimaries Sunday night. But it would be a stunner if Bylsma didn't go back to Jonathan Quick, who played well in the first two U.S. victories.


Patty Takes

Pat LaFontaine had a big day Thursday.  He announced the hiring of his new general manager, Tim Murray, and had an added surprise -- the addition of Craig Patrick, the Hockey Hall of Famer and long-time Penguins general manager, as an advisor to the hockey department.

LaFontaine had a free-wheeling, 15-minute session with reporters after the press conference. Here are a few highlights of Patty's conversation with the media. On the reasons for hiring Murray:

"When I looked at it, Tim was our best fit. I looked for a guy with a tremendous eye for talent and evaluating our next great Buffalo Sabres players for our future. He's the right guy.

"The thing that struck me is, he's paid his dues. He's earned this opportunity. He knows organization from every level, as an assistant general manager and GM of a minor league system. He won a championship in Binghamton two years ago. He knows every facet. He's decisive, he's a team guy, he cares, he loyal and respectful and trustworthy. He's going to be a big piece and a big part to identify those next great Buffalo Sabre players."

On Patrick:

"He's a class guy. His advice and assistance, I think, will be very, very valuable through this process.

"I said, Craig, why would you want to get involved still? And he looked me right in the eye and said, 'Because I know I have two more Stanley Cups in me.' He says, 'I'm not done.' He looked me straight in the eye. When a Hall of Famer, a guy who's done what he's done -- gold medal, Olympics -- looks at you, he wants to help. He wants to give advice. He wants to assist. I want guys like that and I want guys like Tim Murray, who have a gift."

He said two cups? Terry Pegula will love that.

"Two more! He didn't say one. He said he's got two more.  I actually like the fact of Cups plural. If we're going to build a championship-caliber team, we have to have a real strong, gifted hockey operations team first. It's got to translate straight on to the players."

On Ryan Miller's future with the team:

"I listen to what Ryan Miller wants to do. Obviously, you want to keep a great goalie like that. He knows Buffalo. Everybody loves him here. But at the same instance, I've got to know what he wants to do, and if it fits into the plan long-term and financially it's a good fit, Ryan Miller will be here. And if he doesn't want to be here, we'll make the best choice for the future of the organziation.

"Listen. To come by a goalie like that who wants to stay -- should he choose to want to stay here -- it helps our team grow. It gives us an opportunity to develop. If he wants to stay here, in the right terms, I think you'd love to keep Ryan Miller."

On Ted Nolan, and whether the idea of keeping him was a detriment in the GM search:

"No. I think it took a general manager with a very open mind to understand who's there now and be willing to give Teddy the opportunity. Because he is a great coach. Teddy has proven himself. Tim said "Hey, I really like Ted Nolan. I'd like to get to know him. And I'd like to know what you think of him. I'd like to know where we're at. I like where the team is going.'"

"It's about  changing culture.  As you can see, Tim Murray has paid his dues. He's earned this opportunity, every step of the way, and he knows Teddy has done the same thing. Let them get to know each other. A general manager and a coach have to work tight together. They have to be a good team. and he was very open to doing that."





Is Darcy safe?

The more times goes by, the more I believe that Darcy Regier will be here next season as the Sabres' general manager. When Lindy Ruff was fired earlier in the season, a lot of observers assumed the general manager would also be jettisoned if the Sabres missed the playoffs this season. I'm not so sure of that.

Regier is busy at work "rebuilding" the team. He traded Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr. On Tuesday, Jason Pominville confirmed that he had given Regier a list of teams to which he wouldn't approve a trade. Does this look like a GM who is destined to be fired? If Terry Pegula was going to let Regier go after the season, why would he allow him to go about reshaping his team?

Continue reading "Is Darcy safe? " ยป


Darcy Regier is management's mouthpiece on personnel matters, so the Sabres' veteran general manager was compelled to spout the company line and deny the obvious after the puzzling decision to waive Tim Kennedy. But I was surprised that his nose didn't grow when he uttered these words at Tuesday's press conference:

"There is no room for being vindictive," Regier said.

On the contrary, buying out Kennedy was a vintage vindictive act by management. How else could you explain the Sabres cutting ties with a young prospect who had just won a $1 million contract in arbitration? You needn' be a cynic to suspect that management resented Kennedy going to arbitration and wanted to show the world they weren't going to let him get away with it.

This was about $200,000 in salary, a fairly insignificant sum. What if the arbitrator had awarded Kennedy, say, $875,000? Are we supposed to believe the Sabres would have still cut him? I have to think they would have kept him at a lesser number. The Sabres pride themselves on player development and showing patience with their prospects. This seems like an awfully flimsy way to determine the roster. It's hard to imagine this move playing well in the dressing room.

Regier isn't a vindictive sort by nature. But he works for two of the more vindictive men in the game: Sabres owner Tom Golisano and his managing partner, Larry Quinn. People who have negotiated with Golisano and Quinn behind the scenes can tell you how spiteful those two can be when people have the audacity to challenge them. There's a vindictive quality to many of Golisano's political machinations.

People say the Kennedy move makes no sense. It makes perfect sense when you consider the vindictive nature of the people at the top of the operation. There's one word for it:


Rock Star Status

How big has Ryan Miller become since his MVP performance at the Olympics? Big enough that one of the world's biggest pop stars wanted to meet him when he came to Buffalo. Elton John played HSBC Arena with Billy Joel on Tuesday night. Beforehand, the Sabres heard that John (is it "Elton" or "John" on the second reference?) was interested in meeting Miller backstage before the show.

Mike Gilbert, the Sabres' head of public relations, informed the pop star that Miller generally didn't go to events on the night before a game. Miller didn't attend (and I'm guessing that John and Joel aren't his cup of tea). But Gilbert presented Sabres jerseys to both superstars. After Elton got his jersey, he turned to Gilbert and said, "That's one hell of a goalie you have there!

Apparently, John is a big hockey fan. As legend has it, John once ran into Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. He said, "You're the guy who traded Pat LaFontaine!"

Gilbert was in his first season with the Sabres when Dominik Hasek won the Olympic gold medal. That year, Gilbert accompanied Hasek on much of his-post Olympic tour and compared it to traveling with a rock star. He said the response to Miller has been similar, if not quite as intense.

Thick-headed Sabres

Ryan Miller got a nice ovation from the crowd at HSBC Arena before the game for his Olympic heroics. But after the Sabres' 3-1 loss to the Capitals, Miller seemed to be holding back an outburst of his own. He didn't call his teammates "fragile kids", as he did during their recent seven-game losing streak, but it was clear that Miller was upset with the Sabres for straying from the system in an uneven and disappointing loss to the top team in the East.

The Sabres have now lost nine of their last 10 games. There was an exhilirating Olympic break in there, and a memorable performance by Miller. But the medals are in the drawer and the Sabres once again appear to be a team in crisis. I asked the Buffalo goalie afterwards if things were back to where they were before the Sabres beat San Jose before the Olympic break.

"Yeah," Miller said. "But as I said earlier today in the press conference,  I think every game can become independent of the other. It's the kind of mindset you take. If we can erase the last two games and begin to respect the system and play a sound game, we're going to win some hockey games. But if you continue down this path, it's not the way to do it. It's been proven.

""And if we're too thick-headed to let that sink it, we deserve what we're getting. For my part, I'm going to make sure the attitude around here is going to be right. We need to strive to get better and strive to be winners. We can't just hope we get by. There's been a little too much of that."

Sounds like Miller won't hesitate to call his teammates out in the future if they continue to play sloppy hockey and abandon the system. His play in Vancouver enhanced his status as a team leader and spokesman. Miller admitted during the losing streak that he had been mad at the team for a month. If they don't turn it around soon, it won't be surprising if he has another blistering rant.

Stay tuned.

Best Goalie on the Planet?

Ryan Miller didn't win the gold medal, but the Sabres' goalie was named the MVP of the Olympic hockey tournament and raised his stature as an elite goalie. Miller's name will now be in the discussion when hockey types argue who is the best goaltender in the NHL -- and in the world. 

There's no clear-cut choice right now. Martin Brodeur has three Stanley Cups and the NHL career records for wins and shutouts. But Brodeur lost his job as Canada's goalie in the tournament. He will turn 38 in May. He hasn't played in a conference final in seven seasons. 

Vancouver's Roberto Luongo backstopped Canada to the gold. He's been acknowledged as one of the elite goalies for several years. But he has not been a big-game goalie until this year's Olympics. Luongo still has a lot to prove as a big-time netminder in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Anaheim's Jonas Hiller was tremendous for Switzerland in the Olympics. He would have to be considered. Tomas Vokoun of Florida leads NHL goalies in save percentage with a .931 mark. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov has terrific numbers this season for a very good team. But he got lit up for Russia in the Games.

There are a lot of very good goalies in the sport right now, but no single goalie who stands above the rest. So there's room for a goalie to make a big statement in this year's Cup playoffs and in coming years. Maybe Miller will be that guy. What do you think? Is he the best goalie in the world after his Olympic heroics? And if not, who would you pick?

We're not going on career achievement (Brodeur would win hands down), but who you think is the best right now.

Bench Rivet?

Lindy Ruff said after today's practice that he has no intention of benching Craig Rivet. Ruff sat Rivet for a large stretch of Tuesday night's shootout loss to the Bruins at HSBC Arena. Rivet played just 4:03 after the first period against Boston. This hardly comes as a surprise. Ruff is understandably sensitive about sitting out his captain. He was benched as captain of the Sabres by Ted Sator.

But if Rivet didn't have the "C" on his jersey, he probably would have watched a game from the press box by now. The veteran defenseman has struggled this season. He has only one goal and 12 points. He has gone 16 games without an assist. Rivet is 103rd among NHL defensemen in points. He is tied for 130th in hits and tied for 160th in blocked shots. Hockey stats don't always tell the story, but Rivet has not been producing in any significant area.

This is what happens when a team is desperate for leadership and has to go outside the organization to find a veteran to fill the void. The Sabres lost a lot of leadership from the team that reached consecutive conference finals after the lockout. They brought in Rivet and handed him the captaincy. He helped bridge the gap, but it's difficult to lead when your own performance is suffering. Rivet is 35 and his days as a top four defenseman might be nearing an end.

At some point, the Sabres need their young core players to develop into leaders. They can't keep borrowing it from the outside. Last offseason, they brought in Mike Grier and Steve Montador to solve a lack of team toughness. It worked, but there are still players on the team whose leadership and toughness leave a lot to be desired. That includes the likes of Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek. 

Is there a future captain among that group? 


Two Live Chats This Week

Just a quick reminder: I'll be chatting live from the News at 1 p.m. on Thursday. Had to move it up again because I'm covering the Canisius-Niagara men's basketball game on Friday night. Also, I'll be back for my second annual Super Bowl chat, live from the easy chair in Mike and Liz Schmand's living room in North Buffalo. I'm expecting to get the chat started shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday. Should be lots to talk about.

Tonight, I'm covering Sabres-Ottawa at the Arena. I'm calling it the biggest game of the year. The Senators have won nine in a row and have crept to within five points of the Sabres in the Northeast Division. The Sabres haven't lost in regulation at home in their last 12 games. But they've lost seven in a row to their division rival. Ottawa is 23-6-4 against Buffalo in the regular season since the lockout. So it's about time for the Sabres to end this Senators bugaboo and restore some distance in the division race.

It's scoreless after a period, which was dominated by the Sabres. They had some terrific shifts and several scoring chances -- including a near-goal that was swept away by Anton Volchenkov as it was about to cross the goal-line. The play was reviewed and it looked very close, but there was no overhead view so the officials allowed the call to stand.

It's Hockey Season

Wow. I sat down to begin a live blog from the Sabres and it was 3-0 before I even had time to post.

After today's morning skate, coach Lindy Ruff was asked if he was feeling better about his team's ability to avoid bad starts after the Montreal win. The Sabres had fallen behind 3-0 in their previous two games and suffered some horrid first periods in recent weeks. 

"I feel better about our start," Ruff said.  "I still think we can be stronger. By no means is the start going to be easy tonight."
So much for it not being easy. Now, wouldn't it be something if the Sabres actually blew a 3-0 lead?

8:38 left in the first period:

My column tomorrow is about Tim Connolly, who has now played 84 consecutive games without getting hurt (don't tell anyone. I wouldn't want to jinx him.) Connolly won a faceoff to set up the opening goal by Tyler Myers, extending his point streak to seven games.

Suddenly, it's 3-2. Before long, they're going to be comparing this to the world junior title game last night.

5:24 left in the first: I'm wondering if I have Tampa Bay in the WGR "anti-three goal deficit pool." Five of us each drafted six NHL teams. Your team survives until it falls behind by three goals in any game -- regardless of the outcome. I got first pick overall and took New Jersey. San Jose went second and promptly got eliminated last night. The Lightning -- gone.

End of second period:

Sorry, I was polishing up my Connolly column. I've never been a Connolly fan, but it was amazing to me that he wasn't seriously considered for the U.S. Olympic team. He's the No. 1 center and top scorer on a division leader in the NHL. We're talking about the American team here. I think it says a lot about his reputation around the league that he wasn't chosen. Apparently, Brian Burke doesn't feel Connolly plays the sort of tough, responsible game that he wants from his U.S. squad. You have to feel a player of Connolly's skill would be an asset, at least as a power play specialist.

Paul Gaustad would have been a nice addition to the U.S. team. If Burke wants tough, responsible team guys, it seems Gaustad would have fit the bill. He was philosophical about it when I talked to him Wednesday, but you could tell he was disappointed.

Anyway, the extra rest might do Connolly and Gaustad some good. They've been the Sabres' two most injury-prone players in recent years, so at least they won't have a chance of getting injured in Vancouver.

14:45 left in the game:

As it turns out, I didn't have Tampa Bay in the "anti-three goal deficit" pool. I didn't have Toronto, either. The Maple Leafs went down tonight. Again, a team is eliminated when it trails by three goals at any time in a game. My first two picks were the Devils and Kings.

Thomas Vanek hasn't scored a goal in consecutive games this season. I think you should expect more frm a $7 million player. Vanek is minus-2 tonight and hasn't been especially noticeable -- even when I haven't been busy typing and have actually been watching the ice.

12:37 left:

Shame on ESPN. I watched the 11 p.m. SportsCenter last night and didn't hear a word about the world Junior championships. All right, so they don't carry NHL games anymore. But they have an obligation to acknowledge a major event in the sport. It kills me when ESPN bows to the mentality in America that hockey doesn't matter.

2:26 left:

The Bills are 21-0-4 this season when tied or leading after two periods. I think they're in good shape here, up 5-3. Pretty amazing stat which shows how far this team has come in a year. Last year, you held your breath when they had a lead late.

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