Crunch time in the NHL

Ryan Miller answered the call in a compelling manner against both Philadelphia and Ottawa. After a somewhat shaky start in the playoffs, Miller settled in to his normal playing style and was simply outstanding in leading Buffalo to both series wins. It was no small feat to stop 129 out of 136 shots in the last four games against Ottawa – a 95% save percentage is tough enough, but to do it against a team like Ottawa is amazing.

Miller also proved the theory posited in a recent post of mine that goaltending is key to winning in the playoffs and to winning the Cup. Despite all of the predictions to the contrary, Ottawa simply was not going to win the Cup this year. The primary reason was their goaltending was mediocre at best. All it took was one hot goaltender on the other side and they were going to be finished. This is not trivializing the effort of all of the other Sabres – the entire team played a phenomenal series. But I do think it is safe to say that if the Sabres goaltending was average or even above average, they would have lost the series.

Now on to Carolina. The Sabres – Carolina series shapes up to be the crunch match of the entire playoffs for the NHL. With Detroit and Dallas gone from the West, I think the Sabres-Carolina series is the real Stanley Cup finals this year. Assuming these two teams don’t run each other into the gutter over a seven-game series with multiple overtimes (entirely possible), the team that emerges as the winner should be able to take the Cup with relatively little pain. The Western conference champion will likely be lulled into a false sense of security and it will be several lost games against either Carolina or Buffalo before they know what hit them.

The best part of the Carolina – Buffalo series will be the match-up between Cam Ward and Ryan Miller. Both goalies are rookies and both are at the top of their games right now. We will now see who’s nerves are stronger and can lead their team to a series victory in the highest of high pressure situations. For whomever emerges victorious, it will be one hell of a way to kick off their professional hockey career.

Looking forward to Game 1.

— bkm