ST. LOUIS — The man in the mask with the uncertain future is now in the spotlight. This is why Ryan Miller is here.
The 33-year-old goaltender was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in late February to be the missing piece that takes the St. Louis Blues from Stanley Cup contender to champion in a hockey town long frustrated by its inability to capture a Cup.
So as the Blues go into their playoff opener against the rival and reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night at Scottrade Center, all eyes are on Miller.
"We’re going to need our goalie to be great," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said following Wednesday’s practice. "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, and he’s going to be a major factor in us winning this series. … He hasn’t been around it [the playoffs] for a few years, and he’s really looking forward to getting going."
Miller played in 47 playoff games with the Sabres, most recently in 2011. He is 25-22 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in the postseason.
He has proven to be a big-game, big-save netminder throughout the years. The 2010 Vezina Trophy winner was at his best when he led the U.S. Olympic Team to the silver medal in Vancouver in 2010.
No pressure, Ryan.
So far, it’s difficult to judge the goalie’s brief time with the Note. He went 10-8-1 in 19 starts with a 2.47 GAA and a .903 save percentage — all numbers that pale in comparison to the goalie, Jaroslav Halak, traded for him.
Miller won seven of his first eight starts since the trade, then lost eight of his final 11 starts, including five straight to close out the season as the Blues sputtered to the finish line.
He allowed 33 goals in those last 11 starts, surrendering either three or four goals in nine of them.
Asked on Wednesday to assess his play down the stretch, Miller turned the tables a bit on the assembled media.
"The goals-against wasn’t exactly ideal, but I don’t think it was too bad," he said. "I don’t know. What do you guys think?"
A television reporter told him it was great and wonderful, which drew some laughs from the crowd. So while Miller has to be aware of the pressure building around him, he’s not showing any signs of it affecting him.
"I’m sure there’s some talk about that, but I’m not too worried about it," Miller said. "It’s all zeroes now and it’s a matter of stopping the puck now, and it always is going to be. I feel like I’ve learned some things over the last month and a half about playing with this group. I feel like I’ve built my game to be in a good place come this time of year."
Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff has seen what Miller can do, even if we’ve seen only glimpses in the Gateway City. He was in charge of the Sabres for Miller’s first 10 seasons there, including four playoff appearances.
"I think he’s played in plenty of pressure-cooked opportunities, to play in the gold-medal game in Vancouver and go deep into the playoffs with Buffalo and win some playoff series," Ruff said. "He knows what it takes. He makes key saves at key times. Even more than that, not letting in that goal that hurts you. He’s fought those wars. He’s been there. He’s got that experience. I think he’s a heckuva goaltender."
Sabres coach Ted Nolan said with Miller in net, the Blues are built to win the Cup.
"The difference that separates good teams from great teams is goaltending," he said. "You look at all the past Stanley Cup winners and their goaltender was usually nominated for MVP of the tournament or if not won it."
The stakes are high in St. Louis.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong paid a significant price to acquire Miller, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Armstrong traded Halak, Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a first-round pick in 2015 and another conditional pick in 2016.
"Making the playoffs is no longer the goal. It’s having success and playing toward a championship," Armstrong said on the day of the trade, citing the Blues’ inability to get past Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings in the Blues’ previous two playoff series. "… I just think this gives us a better opportunity to have success in the playoffs."
So far, because of the rough conclusion to the regular season, Miller’s first few weeks in St. Louis look to be a cruel continuation of the curse that has plagued goalies who fail to live up to expectations with the Blues.
Starting tonight, however, he’ll have the opportunity to reverse that curse and author a happier ending.
This is finally Miller’s time, for better or worse.
This is why he is here.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.