The time is now for Blues goaltender Ryan Miller

News-DemocratApril 16, 2014 

— Two of the biggest moves made by General Manager Doug Armstrong during his St. Louis Blues tenure have involved goaltenders.

Armstrong traded for Jaroslav Halak in June, 2010, then in February spun Halak off in another big deal to bring in veteran goaltender Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres.

At the time, the move was described almost universally as one made to give the Blues an upgrade in goal for the playoffs.

The playoffs are here -- and this is supposed to be Miller Time.

Will he be ready?

"We're going to need our goalie to be great in this series," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday. "He's shown the ability to get into people's heads if he plays the way he can. We're going to need him to be really good. He's going to be a major factor in us winning this series."

The 33-year-old Miller twice took the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals, but will be making his first playoff appearance since 2011 on Thursday when the Blues play host to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The native of East Lansing, Mich., hasn't won a playoff series since helping the Sabres reach the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. He is 25-22 in the playoffs with a 2.47 goal-against average and .917 save percentage.

Miller won seven of his first eight starts with the Blues, then dropped to 0-5 with a 3.82 goals-against average and .856 save percentage in his final starts.

Miller allowed 18 goals during that span, although in fairness he also was playing behind an injury-plagued squad that struggled in many areas. It did not resemble the defensively-stingy Blues that had one of the league's top goals-against average most of the season.

Miller was not happy with his own play, either.

"The goals-against wasn't exactly ideal, but I don't think it's too bad," Miller said Wednesday when asked about his recent struggles. "I'm sure there's some talk about that, but I'm not too worried about it. It's all zeros now and it's a matter of stopping the puck now, as it's always going to be."

Miller's is 10-8-1 with the Blues, posting a 2.47 goals-against average and .903 winning percentage with one shutout.

Former Sabres teammate Steve Ott firmly believes Miller can be a difference-maker in the postseason.

"Ryan's world-class, the most professional hockey player I've ever played with probably," Ott said. "I'm sure he's relishing and excited for this opportunity to be behind a great team. He's a world-class goalie and I expect him to be throughout the playoffs."

Miller has studied the Blues' defensive system and tried to assimilate as many details as possible when it comes to communicating with his defensemen.

"I've learned some things over the last month and a half about playing with this group," he said. "I've built my game to be in a good place come this time of the year and over the last year and a half or two years, I think I've built a good attitude to play hockey the right way."

Miller has a lot to play for.

Like the Blues, he's never won a Stanley Cup. In addition, he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and is playing for a new contract either here, or elsewhere.

"It's a great opportunity anytime you make it (into the playoffs) and in any position," Miller said. "You see in the last few years what teams have done from different positions, different rankings, and what they've been able to do.

"I'm just happy for the opportunity. There's challenges in every season, we're facing ours right now. How we're going to react, how we're going to respond ... I think it can end up a positive."

Miller was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2010 Winter Olympics while helping Team USA to a silver medal. He's thrived in the playoffs before, but is with a new franchise that hasn't exactly been known for playoff success in recent years.

The Blues have advanced out of the first round only once since 2002. They have been eliminated in each of the last two seasons by the Los Angeles Kings.

While Hall of Fame goaltenders Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall helped the Blues reach the Stanley Cup finals in each of their first three years of existence, the team hasn't been back since.

There have been some hot playoff goaltending runs by Mike Liut, Curtis Joseph and Grant Fuhr, but none has brought a Stanley Cup to the Blues.

"Ryan is looking forward to this challenge," Hitchcock said. "He hasn't been around it for a few year and he's really looking forward to getting going.

"Like any series you're going to need your goalie to be good, but when you're playing a team like Chicago with the firepower they have, our goalie's going to have to be great. He's going to have to be one of the key factors in our game every night."

The art of goaltending can be as much about the mental side of the game as the physical.

It's all about stopping pucks, but it's also about exuding confidence and making teammates believe that you are capable of handling anything sent your way.

A hot goalie can turn around a game, a series or backstop a team on a long playoff run. In the playoffs, a struggling goalie makes for a quick exit.

"You try and carry the good stuff in from the season, even if it's the smallest little bit," Miller explained. "You're pulling in experience and you're hunkering down for a battle. You're racing to four games out of seven an your focus is on that task

"It's just going to come down to one-game battles and you go from there."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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