x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Miller can pull out the stops for USA

With many eyes turning to which players will be selected for their country's Winter Olympic squads, the United States' choice of goalies for the last Games seems almost laughable.

With many eyes turning to which players will be selected for their country's Winter Olympic squads, the United States' choice of goalies for the last Games seems almost laughable. Rick DiPietro, John Grahame and Robert Esche - not one of those netminders has played a game in the NHL this season. Esche is in Russia, Grahame does not have a club, while DiPietro was sidelined for the first two months of this season while recovering from a second operation on a hip.

Since 2007, he has also had knee surgery twice, only a year after he had signed a 15-year, US$67.5 million (Dh 248m) contract with the New York Islanders. But there is an American goaltender who is playing extremely well in the NHL this season - Ryan Miller. The Buffalo Sabres keeper is leading the league in goals-against average (1.85) and save percentage (93.6), on top of which he is tied for the most shut-outs (three) and has the third most wins (16).

Not bad for a guy selected 138th overall in the 1999 draft. It is striking, really, how the rise of Miller has coincided with the fall of DiPietro. To be fair, DiPietro's tumble has more to do with his injury woes than a decline in his on-ice performance. This past weekend, when he started a game for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' farm team in the American Hockey League, DiPietro gave up three goals on 13 shots in two periods of play.

The good news is, he was pulled after 40 minutes - not because he was hurt, but because management wanted to ease him back into action. Miller, meantime, has seen all the action he can handle. After three seasons at Michigan State from 1999 to 2002 - during which time his goals-against average never exceeded 1.77 a game and he was voted the best college player in the United States in 2001 - he spent three years honing his skills and bouncing between the NHL and the minor leagues.

As a low draft pick Miller had to prove himself. He needed to show the Sabres he could dominate in the pros like he did in college. Finally, after a save percentage above 92 in three consecutive AHL seasons, Miller arrived in the NHL for good in 2005/06. He promptly went 30-14-3 and led the Sabres to the Eastern Conference play-off final - and followed up with a 40-16-6 season and a return to the East final the next year.

His record slipped a bit in the past two seasons, in part because the Sabres lost the likes of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency and failed to replace those offensive leaders with anyone of consequence. This year, though, Miller has taken his game to a new level. After arriving in the NHL a little too late to register on Team USA's radar in 2006, Miller's timing is perfect for the Olympics this time around.

His superlative play should guarantee him the starting job. The Boston Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas, the Vezina winner last season, has been injured and inconsistent this year, and the next-best bet is the Colorado Avalanche netminder Craig Anderson, who, like Miller four years ago, is still a bit of an unknown. And DiPietro? Well, he went 1-3-0 as Team USA's No 1 in 2006, and he is, at best, the No 3 goalie for the Islanders at the moment, behind Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron.

If his hip holds up (and his knee, too), maybe we will see him in the 2014 Games in Russia. But for now the Americans' hopes of upsetting the likes of Canada and Russia will probably rest solely on Miller's shoulders. smccaig@thenational.ae