SOCHI, Russia — Four years ago, for a few magical days in February, he was “America’s goalie.” Ryan Miller carried the U.S. to within an eyelash of an Olympic gold medal, inspiring even casual hockey fans to gather in patriotic thrall in front of their TVs.
Back in Buffalo, people bonded in civic pride, watching Miller occupy the world spotlight and lift the American team. It was crushing when he lost, but still a rare fine moment for Sabres fans, who welcomed him like a conquering hero when he returned home as the Olympic MVP.
So it’s amazing to think that, just a few months ago, the men in charge of selecting this year’s U.S. team were wondering whether Miller was good enough for the Olympics this time around.
“I think I was on the outside looking in,” Miller said. “The way people were talking, yeah, it did kind of sting. I think it was more a testament to the way USA goaltending has developed the last few years. It’s great for U.S. hockey, but at the same time, you don’t want to be pushed out of the equation.”
Miller, who had been fairly average since his Vezina season in 2010, did the same thing he had before those Games: He played some of the best hockey of his life, making a persuasive case that he is still one of the best goalies in the game, surely one of the top three in the U.S.
As the Sabres staggered to the worst record in the NHL, Miller became the league’s busiest, and maybe its best, goaltender. As of last Friday, he was 14-20-3, with an ordinary 2.59 goals-against. But his save percentage (.927) was fifth in the NHL, career-wise second only to his .929 in 2010.
The USA hockey folks must have noticed that the closer he gets to another Olympics, the better Miller plays. Over a 16-game stretch from Dec. 10 to last Thursday’s win in Phoenix, Miller was 9-4-3 with a .940 save percentage. Considering the talent around him, that’s astonishing.
Jonathan Quick, who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012, is a strong contender to start in goal for the U.S. But he’s coming back from a groin injury and doesn’t have Miller’s international experience. Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings is the other goalie.
Amherst native Brooks Orpik, 33, is back for another Olympics and joins Miller as one of the elder statesmen. The Penguins defenseman gained a deepened regard for Miller in Vancouver.
“I definitely appreciated his skill level a lot more and the things behind the scenes you don’t see,” Orpik said. “Of any goalie I’ve played with, he’s been the most prepared before the games, mentally and physically. He’s definitely a pretty intense guy, and on the flip side he’s also a really nice person and a soft-spoken guy.
“But when it comes to hockey, not just goalies, he’s one of the most prepared athletes you’ll find.”
Dan Bylsma, the U.S. coach, hasn’t picked a No. 1 goalie. Historically, the Americans have used more than one goalie to find which one is hot. Bylsma, head coach of the Penguins, will want to see if Miller has retained the magic of four years ago.
Miller is rising to the challenge, as he did in Vancouver. He’s not afraid to say he wants that moment again. He wants the pressure of the big stage.
It’s clear that he feels he has earned it.
“It’s all about going out and establishing yourself,” Miller said. “I like both those guys as people, and I think they’re great goaltenders. But I want the opportunity, and if I don’t have it, I’ll wish them the best and be a good teammate.
“But if you’re competitive, you want to be the guy in the moment.”
Miller, at 33 the oldest U.S. player (two months older than Orpik), says he has matured since 2010. He’s married now and says he has more balance in his life. He said certain aspects of hockey don’t loom as large as before.
“I hope in the last four years I’ve grown as a person and as a player,” he said, “calmed myself down to the point where emotionally I can be in any game and I can be effective. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity.”
The U.S. team is older and more mature, with 13 players back from the silver medalists of 2010. They won’t surprise anyone this time. They’re expected to contend. Of course, the field is deeper and more talented than ever. There are 150 current NHL players on the 12 rosters.
It’s Miller’s last shot at gold. It might be the last shot for the NHL players, at least for the time being. NHL officials feel shutting down their sport in midseason is a needless interruption and bad for business. The league isn’t likely to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea.
“February is a big month for the NHL,” said Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who will play for Sweden. “It’s basically all that’s going on, except basketball. It’s a huge profit month.”
The NHL was reluctant to take part this time, but eventually relented, in part because superstars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin said they would play for Russia regardless.
There is enormous pressure on Russia to win on home soil. They haven’t taken gold since 1992, when the “Unified Team” won in the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup. The Soviets had won gold in seven of eight Games before that.
These are seen as President Vladimir Putin’s Olympics, an attempt to show the world the Russians are still a thriving culture. They’re expected to win.
Igor Larionov, who won two golds in the 1980s while playing for the Soviets, said if Russia wins gold in hockey and no other medals, the Olympics will be a success.
Russia certainly has talent. It has Ovechkin, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk, now in the KHL, will play. They have six solid defensemen and the reigning Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, in goal.
In recent years, the Russians have been criticized for selfish, undisciplined play, a stark change from the Soviet era. They hired coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, renowned for his conservative methods, to make 16 NHL and 9 KHL stars function as a team.
The competition will be fierce. Canada, the defending champion, has an embarrassment of riches at center: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares. But there are questions about the Canadians’ goaltending and their speed.
Sweden, which won the ’06 gold, has 24 NHL players on its 25-man roster. The “Tre Kronor” has the Sedin twins, Henrik Zetterberg and Erik Karlsson. They have an elite goalie in Henrik Lundqvist. The Sabres’ Jhonas Enroth will be a backup.
“I think expectations are pretty high,” Tallinder said. “Yeah, we have way more depth. The depth chart we have is way bigger this year than it’s ever been. I think there’s four or five teams that can win this thing. Anyone can have a good day and beat a good team.”
It promises to be a thrilling tournament. The difference between gold and sixth could come down to goaltending. Russia and the U.S., who are in the A group, meet in a Feb. 15 preliminary. Will Bylsma use Miller against Russia to find out if his MVP aura carries over from 2010?
The men’s gold-medal game is on Feb. 23, the culminating moment of the Games. Russia desperately wants to be there. It was a perfect ending four years ago, when Canada and the U.S. met for the title in the climactic moment of an Olympics in North America.
It would be a gripping finale if Russia played for gold. That final would be almost too perfect. There’s no telling whether the Americans can recapture what they had four years ago. But the world is ready. So is Ryan Miller.
“It’s pretty amazing it’s gone so fast,” Miller said, “but it’s another good opportunity. I’m the kind of player who wants to be in that situation. When you start to feel a lot of pressure and expectation, you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Don’t hide from it. It’s what you wanted.’ ”