The team's confidence was on the line – and it was Ryan Miller who kept it intact.
On Saturday night, the Vancouver Canucks held a precarious 1-0 lead against the visiting Detroit Red Wings early in the third period. Vancouver had played well while in the lead this season, but the feeling had frayed after the team blew two leads and lost to Anaheim and Los Angeles in the past week.
Detroit pressed, the Wings working one of the best power plays in the league. In 20 seconds, Pavel Datsyuk had two beautiful chances. The first came as he drove into the slot, collected a pass and banged the puck to the net, but Miller kicked it out with a right pad save. Moments later, Datsyuk was all alone, two metres from the net, when a pass was flung from the far corner onto his stick. The shot wasn't great, and Miller, sliding across on his knees, corralled it.
Datsyuk skated away, head down, and chastised himself. The crowd at Rogers Arena, in a rarity this season, bellowed out: "Mil-ler! Mil-ler! Mil-ler!" And the lead held, the Canucks securing an important win, as they are squeezed in with six Western Conference teams all within a few points of each other.
This is why the Canucks pay Miller $6-million a year, in the first of three seasons for a goalie who will be 36 when his contract is done. The free-agent signing garnered quite a bit of criticism last summer, after Vancouver's rookie general manager, Jim Benning, who was director of amateur scouting in Buffalo when Miller was drafted there in 1999, signed him as the Canucks' ballast.
The criticism died down in the early going this season, as Miller and the Canucks piled up wins, but flared again by December, when Miller was plowed through a long Canucks road trip out east. The first loss came in Detroit, followed by a string in which he played terribly, with a save percentage of just 0.833 in four losses. Even with many other strong showings, his numbers looked bad, his save percentage not much above 0.900. Not exactly what a $6-million goalie is supposed to deliver.
Fatigue was a primary factor. Miller, a long-time Eastern Conference goalie, was not really ready for the grind of life in the West, and it hit him hard.
It was "a wake-up call for me," said Miller on Saturday night after the Detroit win, reflecting on the past five weeks.
He began to make adjustments. Before he helped produce a win against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 20, he didn't participate in Vancouver's morning skate, deciding instead to save his energy for the game that night. It worked. It is something he has continued to do, including Saturday before the Detroit win. And over Christmas, he put a particular emphasis on rest and recovery.
The reversal in numbers is significant. Miller is 4-1-1 in the past six games, the two losses coming against Anaheim and L.A. The two goals Miller ceded late against L.A. were masterful shots – a goalie will not stop them all. But he's stopped a lot of them: In the six games, Miller has turned away 190 of 200 shots, a sterling save percentage of .950. It has lifted his season-long figure to .913, close to his career number of .915 and in line with the likes of New York's Henrik Lundqvist, another goaltender who is getting older – but who does not have to deal with the grind of time-zone-hopping roadtrips.
"It's just something to get used to," said Miller of life in the Western Conference.
How Miller weathers this winter is essential, because last year the Canucks collapsed in January-April. After this five-game home stand, the next trip east is five games. The following five games out east are at the end of February. Four games in the Midwest, including Chicago, arrive as the season nears its end, as March becomes April.
The Canucks are really no further ahead today than they were last season. This year, after 37 games, they have 47 points and a goal differential of plus-11. Last season, after 37 games, it was 46 points and a goal differential of plus-11.
The implosion of a year ago saw many spectacles, from the explosion of Mount Tortorella in a near fight with Calgary coach Bob Hartley to the shocking trade of Roberto Luongo. One can trust Miller will be here at season's end. Whether he's worth $6-million remains to be seen.