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Miller shows value of having elite player at goaltending position

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller

David Duprey/The Associated Press

In case anyone is wondering about the value of a star goaltender, check out Ryan Miller versus the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.

Through the first two periods, highlighted by a 5-on-3 power play late in the first period, Miller made the Buffalo Sabres' two-goal lead look as large as six by frustrating the Leafs at every turn. Then, in the last two minutes and 33 seconds of the third when the Leafs pulled their goaltender for an extra skater, which finally woke up those left among the slumbering crowd of 19,475, Miller again slammed the door shut on the hosts.

Now the Sabres, who were in the unenviable position of opening the NHL season with back-to-back home and road games, are 2-0 because of Miller. He made 27 saves on Sunday to beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 and followed that up with Monday's 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs with 34 saves.

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"Sometimes the hockey gods are looking down on you," Sabres defenceman Jordan Leopold said. "[Miller] looked really good. In back-to-back games he made big saves and ended up stealing a couple of points for us.

"We capitalized on some opportunities [against the Leafs] and we also gave up some opportunities. But he bailed us out."

And now, thanks to Miller, Leafs general manager David Nonis is going to have the first of many difficult days. With the Sabres goaltender showing just how important it is to have one of the NHL's elite at the position, the Roberto Luongo debate will get a fresh dose of gasoline, not that it ever requires much stoking in Toronto.

With Brian Burke booted to the essentially imaginary position of senior adviser to the MLSE suits who fired him, the heat from the Luongo firestorm belongs to Nonis. Luckily for Leaf fans, impulsiveness is not one of Nonis's character traits, since Miller put in the kind of performance Monday night that has made more than one NHL GM pick up the phone and give in to a rival's trade demands for a goaltender.

Miller was in turn, good, lucky and great, coolly holding up Buffalo's slim lead through his teammates' repeated attempts to hand it over to the Leafs by taking a long string of penalties. There were some lucky escapes – Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel hit crossbars and Nazem Kadri had a goal waved off when he jammed it in just after the whistle sounded – but for every one of those Miller made a couple of big saves.

One couldn't help but remember what Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said after his team opened the season last Saturday with a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens: "We don't ask our goaltenders to win the hockey game. We ask our goaltenders to give us a chance."

Well, that's fine if you are as deep as the 1998 Detroit Red Wings and can win the Stanley Cup with Chris Osgood providing that kind of goaltending. It's not so fine when you're not as good as the 2013 Red Wings and much less experienced.

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Once again, Ben Scrivens gave the Leafs a chance to win the game. But Miller gave his team the win. He was the difference.

That is why Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis is being so stubborn about trading Luongo. Even when his own fans are screaming as loud as Leafs Nation because the Canucks are missing two-thirds of their second line thanks to injuries.

Luongo may have 10 years and $47.3-million (U.S.) left on his contract at the age of 33 and deep down Gillis may indeed be itching to ship him out quickly for a forward or two but he knows the best thing to do right now is nothing. This, of course, is helped by the fact Cory Schneider flubbed his full-time debut in the job he took from Luongo.

Somewhere around the league, if not in Toronto then somewhere else (Philadelphia even?) the pressure is quickly increasing. Given the vagaries of a 48-game season, Gillis has a better than even chance of getting his price (an NHL regular plus a prospect).

Again, if you're not sure about that, see Ryan Miller versus the Maple Leafs, Jan. 21.

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