The U.S. men's Olympic hockey team came into Vancouver "as an afterthought," according to starting goaltender Ryan Miller. They left town, as he said, "one shot short" of a gold medal. And no one personified the Americans' overachievement more than Miller himself.
Yes, he was beaten five-hole by Sidney Crosby's game-winner in overtime of Sunday's gold-medal game, yet it wouldn't be fair to allow one spectacular play made by arguably the best player in the universe to cast a pall on Miller's Olympic tournament.
Miller, the 29-year-old netminder from the Buffalo Sabres, was named the most valuable player of the Vancouver Olympic competition by both the media and the tournament directors. He went 5-0-1 as Team USA's starter, shutting out Switzerland in the quarterfinals and pitching 48-plus minutes of shutout ball in the semis against Finland before he was relieved by backup Tim Thomas. He allowed just eight goals on 147 total shots in Vancouver. Miller's goals-against average of 1.35 broke Jim Craig's 1980 record of 2.14 for a U.S. goalie in the Olympic tournament.
"He was the best goalie in the tournament," said defenseman Toni Lydman, Miller's teammate in Buffalo who won bronze with the Finnish team. "You have to remember, that's not just any tournament. It's the best of the best. He didn't really surprise me. I'm happy for him."
"He was our best player every game," U.S. defenseman Erik Johnson told NHL.com.
"He was the main reason we were in the gold-medal game and why we got it to overtime," U.S. forward Ryan Callahan said to NBCOlympics.com.
But much like Team USA as a whole, Miller's success didn't exactly come out of nowhere.
A native of East Lansing, Mich., Miller won the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player in the country in 2001. He rose to NHL prominence in 2006-07 when Buffalo — led by the high-scoring trio of Daniel Briere, Thomas Vanek and Miller's eventual U.S. Olympic teammate, Chris Drury – won the President's Trophy with the best regular-season record before losing to the Senators in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Sabres scored 308 goals that season (3.76 per game), 20 more than the second-place team, but their breakout campaign wasn't solely due to their propensity for lighting the lamp. Miller, in just his second year as a full-time starter in the NHL, was named to the All-Star Game and went an impressive 40-16-6. Some critics scoffed at his pedestrian 2.73 goals-against average or his .911 save percentage, but Miller still got the call when it counted, starting all 16 playoff games for Buffalo and going 9-7 with a 2.22 GAA and .922 save percentage in the process.
Briere and Drury both left Buffalo in the summer of 2007, and with them went a good deal of the team's offensive firepower. Miller nonetheless went on to win 36 and 34 games, respectively, over the next two seasons, but the Sabres struggled, missing out on the postseason each year.
That gave Miller's detractors even more ammunition. He obviously couldn't lead Buffalo to the playoffs on his own, but was his previous success just a symptom of playing on a great team? Were his high-scoring teammates to thank for his gaudy record?
Perhaps not completely.
This season, though the Sabres are 17th in the league in goals (163, just 2.72 per game), they're 33-18-9 and just two points out of the second seed in the Eastern Conference. And as usual, Miller is getting the lion's share of the playing time between the pipes, going 30-14-7 with a 2.16 GAA and a .930 save percentage, both of which place him among the league leaders and stand to be career bests.
"We know him in this room," Sabres backup goalie Patrick Lalime told The Associated Press on Monday, "and we'll take him over any other goaltender right now in the game. He just showed the whole world what he can do."
"He's obviously one of the major reasons why we've had the success we've had to this point," said Sabres defenseman and captain Craig Rivet. "He's certainly the backbone of this hockey team."
And with the five-year, $31.25 million contract he signed in July of 2008, it seems that Miller will be in a Buffalo uniform at least through the end of the 2013-14 season.
Despite the frustration of Sunday's loss to Canada, Miller was upbeat about his recent run of success.
"I feel good about my game," Miller told NHL.com on Sunday. "But it kind of stinks coming up short. I guess I'll get some perspective in a few weeks."
"I'm sure he's a little disappointed," Rivet said. "But once he actually takes some time to think about the way he actually played, he was phenomenal. He couldn't have done much more than what he did."
Another Buffalo blue-liner Henrik Tallinder, who represented Sweden in Vancouver, hopes that Miller's Olympic hot streak will translate into W's as the Sabres drive toward the postseason.
"He had an unbelievable Olympics," Tallinder told the AP. "We just hope that he can bring that little bit extra to the final stretch here."
Miller's Olympic experience didn't end quite the way he wanted, but as he told NBC after the game on Sunday, "I think we gained a lot of respect."
If Miller continues to play the way he did for the USA in Vancouver, it won't be long before he and the Sabres arrive at the happy ending they're hoping for.