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Gone but not forgotten

March 3, 2014

The Word document for this post sat blank for quite some time. Probably because it’s still difficult to put to words exactly what I’m feeling regarding Ryan Miller’s departure.

Miller’s departure was something I was prepared for and expecting dating back to last year’s deadline. It was clear that the Sabres were moving in the direction of a full rebuild and a 33 year-old goaltender typically isn’t a major part of those practices. Having a full calendar year to consider his landing spot and prepare emotionally probably made Friday – and yesterday for that matter – much easier to stomach.

Things really set in when I saw him donning a white mask and the Blue Note in Phoenix on Sunday night. That made it real. Seeing him allow a pair of goals that were straight out of the Sabres defensive playbook softened the blow, but seeing Miller playing for a team other than the Sabres was odd.

The past 12 years have served as a wonderful dessert for the dominance Sabres fans enjoyed during Dominik Hasek’s tenure. Luckily things ended far more amicably with Miller than they did with Hasek. The Sabres also managed to get far more in return for their departed star.

Perhaps Miller’s legacy will be tarnished by the impossible-to-fill shoes of the Dominator, but trying to compare the two is so foolhardy to begin with that it’s never been an issue for me. Hasek will always be first with Miller shortly behind. But that doesn’t diminish the impact Miller had on the city and organization.

His philanthropic efforts were consistent and widespread and every time he’s spoke on the topic of Buffalo it’s contained nothing but glowing reviews. His thoughts after his final full practice drove that home as he joked about getting lessons on holding his stick and old women having concern over his weight. His emotion as his press availability after the trade was reminiscent of so many others whose connection with their city was strong. As many have already said, Miller grew up as a Buffalo guy and left as yet another adopted son.

His connection with the city and the fans who live here underscores the success he enjoyed on the ice. Every player short of Gretzky and Orr have their detractors and Miller wasn’t immune to that. It’s always been funny to see their thoughts on why he’s so overrated only for the opinions of the few to be so easily contradicted with a simple peek at his stat pack.

Miller exits as the team’s all-time wins leader, a stat that was augmented by playing for two of the franchise’s most successful rosters and also serving as the lone mail carrier for almost his entire tenure. Make no mistake, no matter how many times you’ve seen Miller “lose a game because he allowed a weak five-hole goal in the final minute”, I can assure you he stole at least two games to that one he may have lost.

For me, there are countless highlights from Miller’s tenure. Having a chance to sit down and conduct an interview for the Gamenight program that turned into a 45 minute chat about goalie gear may be my all-time favorite.  But his on-ice exploits will always stand out for me. It’s probably under appreciated by many but the way he played the game has become somewhat rare in an era of big pads and blocking the puck. There’s something to be said for a goaltender who plays with so much athleticism and skill. His style was captivating and served as an inspiration to me as I found my way onto my school’s team at John Carroll. Now he’s gone and we’re left to remember the  countless victories he snatched from the jaws of defeat.

I think I’ll always remember the run he went on after New Year’s in 2011-12. While it didn’t result in a playoff berth, it was a 30-game display of truly world-class goaltending. I’ve since deleted the spreadsheet, but in late March of that year he had gone 20-8-5 with a 2.13 and .927 since 1/1/12. He was 18-5-5 with a 1.82 and .938 after the All-Star break that year. Simply put, he was dominant and while it is easily forgotten because of his mid-season slump and injury troubles related to the Lucic collision, it will always stand out to me as some of his most impressive and memorable work.

Miller is one of the few players I’ll have no problem following in another city. Thomas Vanek’s departure was jarring but his absence isn’t going to leave a whole like Miller’s will. I’m looking forward to following the Blues through their playoff run. I certainly hope they find their way to the conference finals so the Sabres end up with yet another first round pick. Go Blues, I hope you don’t mind putting down you Buds for a few more Millers.

Ed. Note: Ryan, if you happen to be reading this, I’d be more than happy to take a set of Sabres gear off your hands. Good luck.

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