(HockeySTL)-- When the Blues started their search for a goalie nearly a year ago, they weren’t just searching for any goalie. And when they made a trade at this year’s trade deadline, it wasn’t for just any player; it was for a difference maker; it was for Ryan Miller.
There have been many unwavering doubts about Miller since the trade was made nearly a month-and-a-half ago. Many wondered whether the Blues gave up too much to bring the two-time Olympian to their roster. The concerns were justified when Miller dropped seven of his last nine starts, allowing four goals in four of those losses. It had many wondering whether he could be the goaltender that the Blues needed him to be in the playoffs.
“We are going to need our goalie to be great in this series,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said prior to the series’ start. “We are going to need him to be great. He’s shown the ability to get into people’s heads if he plays the way he can and we are going to need him to be great. He’s going to be a major factor in us winning this series.”
The Miller the Blues saw in Game 1 was the Miller who gets into opponent’s head, who makes the timely saves, and more importantly, who holds down the fort and allows his team the chance to win. That was exactly what Miller did, as he made 39 saves and emerged with a win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
“He got better as the game went on,” said Hitchcock after Thursday’s Game 1 victory. “I thought he was great, outstanding. He was a difference maker for us.”
Miller started the game on shaky ground, allowing three goals on seven first-period shots. But that would be all that would get by Miller. He stopped the next 35 Chicago shots, and shut down the Blackhawks for the next 80:26, in a game that would require triple overtime to be decided.
“I had to enter the battle sometime,” said Miller. “I had to come out and battle. I’m glad we came out with the win.
“I feel good overall. As for the first, you just shrug it off, keep going. It’s not about one period; it’s about getting to four games.”
One thing’s for certain: the Miller that was between the pipes on Thursday was the same one that shut out the Flyers two weeks ago, and the same one that will be needed in net for the remainder of the series and more importantly, the rest of the playoffs.
“In any series, you are going to need your goalie to be good, but when you are playing a team like Chicago, with the firepower they have, our goalie is going to have to be great,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to have to be one of the key factors on our team every night.”
For Miller, the beginning of the playoffs was actually a relief. The 33-year old goaltender was ready to put the final month of the season behind him – a month in which Miller had a .885 save percentage and a 1-5 record.
“Everybody starts with zeroes,” said Miller. “The playoffs are playoffs. You have to go in and compete and try to carry in the good stuff from the regular season. It’s a very different feeling from the regular season. You are racing to four games out of seven. We take it to one-game battles, and go from there.
“The goals against (in the final month) wasn’t ideal, but I don’t think it was too bad. I’m sure there’s talk about that, but I’m not too worried about it. It’s all zeroes now, it’s all about stopping the puck now and it’s always going to be.”
And Hitchcock sensed the goaltender’s readiness, the anticipation of being in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
“Ryan is looking forward to this challenge,” Hitchcock said. “He hasn’t been around for a few years and he’s really looking forward to getting going.”
For Miller, the adjustment after joining the Blues hasn’t gone as swimmingly as anticipated. It never does for a goaltender. There was a game in Toronto in late March where that was apparent to the veteran goalie.
At the time, Miller was unfamiliar with some of his teammates’ voices. He heard a yell to leave the puck behind the net, and as it turns out, that yell came from a Toronto player, who scooped up the puck. It may seem like a little thing, but those little things turn into big things, eventually. For a detail-oriented Miller, it took little time for him to realize that he had to adjust. He says he is now becoming comfortable on the ice and it couldn’t come at a better time.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the past month about playing with this group,” said Miller. “I feel like I’ve built my game to be in a good place come this time of year. I think I’ve built a good attitude to play hockey the right way and to be a good teammate. Right now, it’s coming together as a group, hunkering down and battling as a group.”
And for Miller, ultimately that’s what it comes down to, is giving his teammates a chance to win every night, something he did on Thursday.
“That’s been my focus from day one….battling for the boys,” he said.
The one thing that the Blackhawks don’t want to happen is for Miller to become hot. When he does, he is nearly unbeatable. They saw glimpses of that frustrating Miller in the final half of Thursday’s game. It came at a time when the Blues desperately needed a victory both morally and statistically.
“We needed it for confidence,” said Miller. “We needed it to show the final stretch of the season was behind us. (The Blackhawks) have a ton of talent; they have the experience of winning. I imagine we are going to get a big push-back.”
If the Blues are to have any chance to overthrow the Stanley Cup champions, and ultimately win the Stanley Cup, they will need Miller to be Miller, to be the goalie he was on Thursday and has been in past years. They are going to need Miller to be more than good; they are going to need him to be great.