Last year, the Bufalo Sabres finished 10th in the Eastern Conference – two spots out of the playoffs – with 91 points. Going into tonight’s matchup with the Boston Bruins, the Sabres rank 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 69 points in 52 games – on pace for 109 points for the year.
What explains this projected 18 point (or 9 wins) improvement? Have some of the Sabres key personnel – like Pominville, Connolly, and Roy – matured? Nope. Well, maybe, but that’s not the key variable. It’s all about Ryan Miller. As the most meaningful position in pro sports, a goalie can make a mediocre hockey team look stellar (see the 1998-99 Sabres).
In 2007-08, the Sabres scored 3.06 goals per game. Last year, they scored 2.95 goals per game. And this year, a season where the Sabres are on pace for a much more successful season, the Sabres are averaging just 2.77 goals per game. So offense is down.
What about special teams? Maybe the Sabres power play efficiency is substantially better than the past two years. Nope. In 2007-08, the Sabres scored on 18% of their power plays and successfully killed 83.2% of their penalties. Last year, the Sabres scored on 21.3% of their man advantages and killed 81.8% of their own penalties. This year, the Sabres have fallen back to a 18.3% power play success rate but they’ve increased their penalty kill success rate to 87.1%. Why is the penalty kill rate up? Simple. Ryan Miller.
In 2007-08, Miller has a 90.6% save percentage and allowed 2.64 goals against. Last year, Miller improved his play and stopped 91.8% of the shots he faced and allowed 2.53 goals per game. This year, Miller is playing the best hockey of his career and has a 93.4% save percentage (the best in the NHL) and is allowing just 2.06 goals against. Tyler Myers also deserves some credit for improving the Sabres defensive numbers as he’s logging a tremendous amount of ice time and displaying a maturity level of a player with a decade of pro experience. Averaging over 23 minutes per game and registering a +8, Myers has 30 points and is a favorite for the Calder Trophy.
Miller’s performance this year is very close to Hasek’s play during 1998-99. In that season, Hasek saved 93.7% of the shots he faced and gave up only 1.87 goals against. Miller has finally solidified himself as one of the premier regular season goalies in the NHL. Can he keep the performance up for the rest of the season and through the post-season? If so, maybe the Sabres will find themselves where they were at the end of the 1998-99 season. The Stanley Cup Finals. (P.S. It was no goal).