With Miller, Sabres believe anything is possible

It’s more than an hour after the Buffalo Sabres ended practice,

and goaltender Ryan Miller can still be found in full gear roaming

his familiar crease at the east end of HSBC Arena.

No, Miller doesn’t need any more time tinkering on his already

ultra-efficient puck-stopping style. With three cameras focusing in

on him and a half-dozen people in street clothes looking on,

Miller’s busy filming a promotional spot for an international

sports equipment company.

This is part of the price of fame that comes a season after

Miller – the face of the Sabres – won the Vezina Trophy and became

the star of the Winter Games. His work never seems done.

”Nope,” Miller says without complaint, as he finally makes his

way to the locker room. ”Always on.”

That is what the Sabres are counting on from their star in

preparing to open a season in which coach Lindy Ruff doesn’t shy

from declaring his team’s Stanley Cup objective.

In answering a question about Miller, Ruff quickly segued into

what he sees as the team’s bigger picture.

”Our goal here as a team is to win the Stanley Cup. We might as

well talk about that,” Ruff said. ”And I don’t think we’re that

far away.”

With Miller, anything seems possible in leading to Buffalo’s

season opener at Ottawa on Friday.

He’s coming off a season in which he won 41 games to set the

franchise single-season record, and finished second in the NHL in

both goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (92.9) to win

the Vezina. Add to that the international acclaim Miller drew in

Vancouver in February, when he was named the MVP of the Olympic

Winter Games hockey tournament. Team USA won the silver medal.

”Ryan gets a lot of recognition, and deservedly so. I think

he’s the key piece to this team,” forward Thomas Vanek said.

”Obviously, any talk of the Stanley Cup, goaltending is what you

need, and we have that.”

The question for the Sabres is if they have enough everywhere

else.

As impressive as they were in winning the Northeast Division

title to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years

last season, there are lingering concerns about a team that

collapsed in the first round when it was eliminated in six games by

Boston.

Injuries and a lack of punch in an undersized lineup proved

contributing factors in how the Bruins were able to push the Sabres

around.

Though Tyler Myers, coming off his rookie of the year campaign,

is the new star on defense, the unit is in transition after Buffalo

lost stalwarts Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman in free agency.

They’ve been replaced by the additions of Jordan Leopold and Shaone

Morrisonn.

Up front, the Sabres mostly stood pat in sticking with their

main core of forwards who have proven they can be both prolific and

yet inconsistent.

No need to remind Vanek how disappointing last season was. A

series of injuries led to the three-time 30 goal-scorer’s finish of

just 28 – the fewest since his rookie year in 2005-06.

”It stinks,” Vanek said. ”It doesn’t matter, injured,

healthy, we have to be better as a group. And we weren’t good

enough.”

What doesn’t bother Vanek is how Ruff has set the win-or-bust

tone.

”I’m happy Lindy came out and said it. That should be our

goal,” Vanek said. ”Now we just need to show up and actually do

it and not just always talk about it like we have in the

past.”

The Sabres have been close before as recently as 2006 and ’07,

when they reached the Eastern Conference finals only to lose to

Carolina and Ottawa, respectively.

But that was a different team, one headed by co-captains Chris

Drury and Daniel Briere. It’s no coincidence that the Sabres sudden

decline immediately followed the summer of 2007, when they lost

both Drury and Briere in free agency.

The Sabres are counting on the offseason addition of 17-year NHL

veteran Rob Niedermayer to provide both off and on-ice leadership

to a respected group that already features captain Craig Rivet and

forward Mike Grier.

”We feel like we have a really strong team,” Rivet said.

”From our first line to our fourth line, six real solid

defensemen, and the best goaltender in the world right now: I think

we’re pretty confident in what we have.”