It was a match-up you could not miss. The hottest goaltender of January, Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators, and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, the hottest goaltender of last week, squaring off in a battle of American netminders.
The fact Anderson’s NHL team won easily, 2-0, is no reflection on the Buffalo side, as Miller was almost as solid as the ever-impressive Anderson.
There is a full year to go before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the Canadian nail is already bitten to the quick as to which goaltender will wear the Maple Leaf.
That’s just the way it is in Canada. After naming the team comes Senate reform, the Alberta economy and who will succeed the abdicating Pope.
In the United States, where hockey rarely, if ever, enters the national conversation despite taking silver in the last Olympics and winning gold at the most recent world junior championship, there seems no question: It will be Miller.
(But not here in the frozen north: Is Martin Brodeur, fast going on 41, too old? Will Carey Price be hot or cold? Can Cam Ward come all the way back? Is Corey Crawford for real?)
Anderson, 31, from Park Ridge, Ill., is never mentioned when the potential goaltenders for Team USA comes up, yet his play is more responsible than any others for Ottawa’s fast start this year. An impressive start that unfortunately cooled off after centre Jason Spezza was lost to back surgery.
Miller, 32, from East Lansing, Mich., is playing net for a struggling team that has but two boasts: leading NHL scorer Thomas Vanek and Miller. The two, however, cannot do it alone, as the struggling Sabres seem destined for life at the lower rungs of the standings.
Two teams having trouble at the other net; two teams with no trouble in their own net.
For more than half the game Tuesday neither side could penetrate the other’s crease. Miller was outstanding as he made saves off James Norris Memorial Trophy winning defenceman Erik Karlsson and kept out several goalmouth scrambles.
Anderson more than matched him, robbing Vanek at one point and making a lightning quick save off lanky rookie forward Mikhail Grigorenko. In all, Anderson stopped all 42 shots, Miller 29 of 31.
The Senators finally broke through Miller’s wall when Karlsson – who else? – scored a short-handed goal on a hard blast that the partially screened Sabres goalie could not pick up in time.
"He's one step ahead of everyone else," Anderson said of Karlsson.
It was a horrible outing for Buffalo special teams. They had seven power-play opportunities and could not score on them. They did, however, get scored against on one – the ultimate insult for a power play.
The Senators went ahead 2-0 on a hopeless, Keystone Kops scramble in which Miller made saves but was left helpless on the ice when Erik Condra finally chipped a looping puck up and into the back of the Buffalo net.
“Ryan’s been great,” Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff said. “He’s been big in every game.
“Sometimes, you wish you had a little more support from the offensive side.”
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean could utter the same complaint. After a surprisingly good start to the season, the Senators had lost four of their last five games – the one win coming against Buffalo a week earlier, when Ruff had elected to give Miller a break and start backup Jhonas Enroth.
It was a welcome victory for MacLean, who has been mixing lines like martinis in an effort to compensate for Spezza’s scoring and play making. His players, he said, had become “tight and tentative” as they tried too hard to get back to winning.
Tuesday, it worked. But it will take more than Anderson if the Senators are to again reach the playoffs.
More Canadians, however, are these days thinking more of next year’s Olympics than summer’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The talk shows speculate endlessly on who will be in net, and publications regularly run lists of who is definite to be on the team, and who might be.
And yet, it is largely a myth that goaltenders are the key to Olympic victory. There has been but one instance since the NHL began participating in the Games that a goaltender has been the great difference. That was in the very first one, Nagano in 1998, when Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic stoned Canada in a playoff shootout and then put on an even more remarkable display as he shut out Pavel Bure and Russia in the final.
In 2002 in Salt Lake City, it wasn’t all about goaltending, nor in 2006 in Turin.
In 2010, the gold-medal game between Canada and the U.S. is memorable for the uncertain play and obvious nervousness of the two goalies, Roberto Luongo and Miller. The gold-medal winning goal, scored in overtime by Canada’s Sidney Crosby, was a marvel to the country but hardly to the highlight reels.
And yet, Canada frets. And will worry for a solid year.