TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to think Ryan Miller is taking his Olympic audition a little too far.
The Buffalo Sabres goaltender stopped all 38 shots he faced Monday during a 3-0 victory over Brian Burke’s Maple Leafs. Burke, of course, is in charge of assembling the U.S. Olympic team while Leafs coach Ron Wilson will be behind that country’s bench in Vancouver. Miller has arguably been the top goaltender in the NHL this season and is the front-runner to earn the starting job for the Americans.
It was the second time this season he’s stood on his head against Toronto, having already made 35 saves during a 3-2 overtime victory on Oct. 30.
“Their goalie over there has stolen two games against us,” said Leafs forward Matt Stajan. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe his Team U.S. coach and GM are on our side, he wants to prove something? I don’t know what it is, but he’s one of the best and you’ve got to give him credit.”
There was no shortage of that going around in either dressing room.
The shutout was the third of the season for Miller, who improved his league-leading numbers in the process – he has a .937 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. He also has 15 victories.
Earning an Olympic spot is one of his goals for the season, but he doesn’t think the good performance in front of Burke will make a big difference in the end.
“If Burke’s here, that’s great,” said Miller, who missed the 2006 Olympics with a hand injury. “I got a chance to meet him a few times. Glad I can perform well in this rink, but I’m not getting geared up more (for games against Toronto). He’s not skating against me. I try not to focus on it. I really have done a good job of not bringing it to the forefront in my thought process.
“I’m just trying to stay in my little groove and not sway from it.”
Tim Kennedy, Henrik Tallinder and Jochen Hecht scored for Buffalo (15-7-2), which leads the Northeast Division.
The Leafs, meanwhile, were held off the scoresheet for the first time all season. Toronto’s record fell to 6-12-7.
Starting with Tuesday’s game in Montreal, the Leafs are embarking on an extremely busy stretch that will see them play 16 games in December. The team is nine points behind eighth-place Tampa Bay and has targeted the next month as a key time to try and make up for its poor start.
“(We want to) claw our way back into the race,” said Wilson.
The coach is looking forward to the next three games, which will all be played away from the Air Canada Centre.
“We seem to play better on the road anyway, a little less tense, so I’m not concerned and welcome playing on the road to be honest with you,” said Wilson. “(Tuesday) night the atmosphere will be great and then we’ve got Columbus and the Bruins, an old rival and we’ve got to find a way to get two points or one point out of there.”
Miller made sure they took no points from the Sabres.
Toronto raced out to a fast start, building an 8-1 shot advantage, but couldn’t beat the Sabres netminder. He stopped a couple of chances from Phil Kessel before denying Niklas Hagman from in-close late in the first period.
If that wasn’t enough for Miller to get into the head of his opponents, he probably did during the second period. He stopped Stajan on a dangerous rush and then stood tall as Mikhail Grabovski made a nifty move in front before extending his right pad to stop Kessel.
“I hope he plays like this in February,” said Wilson. “That’s about the extent of it. He made all the difference in the first two periods. We should have had the lead at some point, but you’ve got to give him credit, he made the saves.”
Kennedy opened the scoring at 13:07 of the second period by catching Jonas Gustavsson cheating a little. The Sabres forward saw his soft shot bank off Gustavsson’s skate and into the goal.
Any hopes of a Leafs comeback were eliminated 20 seconds into the third period, when Tallinder’s long shot found the net. It was the first goal in 76 games for the defenceman. That was all the offence Miller would need, although Hecht would add another insurance goal.
Jason Pominville, who finished with two assists, is another U.S. Olympic hopeful and figures his Sabres teammate is already a shoo-in for a trip to the Games.
“They know what he’s capable of doing,” said Pominville. “He proved it again tonight. He’s probably going to be their guy. He’s an elite goalie and he’s been playing unbelievable for us.”
Notes: Mike Komisarek returned to the Toronto lineup after missing nine games with a torn quadricep: “I felt good, felt really good. I had confidence.” … Jeff Finger (lower body), Garnet Exelby and Rickard Wallin sat out for the Leafs. … Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson suffered an upper-body injury in the second period and didn’t return. … Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta served the second game of his two-game suspension. … It was the second career goal for Kennedy, a Buffalo native. … Announced attendance was 19,110.