The Olympians have returned from Sochi, and for the Buffalo Sabres, it was a happy reunion. Goaltender Ryan Miller was on the United States Olympic team, and though he did not see much play in the tournament, there was concern about having him start so soon after the Olympics ended. Those concerns were alleviated Tuesday night, as Miller made 36 saves in a 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in the first game after the Olympic break.
The game was originally scheduled for January 7, but a blizzard in Buffalo forced the league to reschedule the game. Both teams were in Buffalo when the storm hit, but the risk to fans driving to the game was deemed too high for the game to be played. Players were somewhat relieved at the announcement at the time, as a drive back to the hotel from practice that would normally take 15 minutes took one hour instead. The game was rescheduled until Tuesday, just days after the Olympics ended.
Early in the first period, Carolina controlled the play, but Miller stood strong. Scoring chances by Jeff Skinner, Riley Nash, and Justin Faulk were all stymied by Miller before the 15 minute mark of the period. Then to add to Buffalo’s troubles, defensemen John Scott and Tyler Myers took back-to-back penalties, allowing Carolina to work on their power play. Carolina’s power play has been a weakness of theirs for years, costing them many games in the process. In this game, it was be more of the same. Despite having the man advantage, Carolina only managed two shots total in those two power play chances, spending more time chasing the puck than controlling the play. Despite the Carolina advantage in play, the period ended the way it began: scoreless.
In the second period, the Sabres would get their first power play advantage and it would be that advantage that would break the tie and give the Sabres the lead. Defenseman Christan Ehrhoff would fire a bomb from the point, past the screened goaltender. Carolina goaltender Cam Ward would get a glove on the shot, but unfortunately for the Hurricanes, he was unable to prevent the puck from popping out of the glove and slowly making its way past the goal line. It was a poor goal for the goaltender to give up, who was making his first start since late December. Ward has been struggling with injuries over the past couple years and a lack in confidence in his play that stems from those injuries. The goal he gave up certainly will not help those confidence issues.
Perhaps shell-shocked by the fact that they were down on the scoreboard in a game they had been dominating on the ice, the Hurricanes struggled to recover for the rest of the period. The Sabres took a penalty shortly after the goal, but Carolina was not able to register a single shot in the ensuing power play. Lax defensive play and turnovers from the Hurricanes provided many more scoring chances for the Sabres, including a breakaway by forward Steve Ott that Ward was able to get his blocker on. A penalty by Carolina defenseman Brent Bellmore would change the momentum of the game, though not in the expected way.
As the penalty time dwindled down, Faulk chipped the puck past a Buffalo defenseman, creating a two-on-one between Carolina captain Eric Staal and dangerous scorer Alexander Semin. Staal was able to sell the pass to Semin enough to catch Miller out of position and quickly fire the puck between the pads and into the net. Though the actual goal came two seconds after the penalty ended, the play originated because of the strong shorthanded play of the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes led the league in shorthanded goals and were two seconds away from adding another. The Hurricanes would get another chance on yet another power play late in the second, but again, they would come up empty. The two teams would enter the third tied 1-1, despite one team outshooting the other 21-9. Ryan Miller had all the answers, shining through and showing little rust as the NHL returned from the Olympic break.
Both teams would trade powerplay opportunities early to start the third, but both goaltenders would make big saves to keep the score even. It would be an evenly played period throughout, but Buffalo would take a lead with just under eight minutes left to play. Tyler Ennis rushed up the ice and fired a puck at Ward off the wing. Ward believed he had the puck covered under him, but the puck was actually loose behind him. Ennis would spy the loose puck and tuck it into the empty net, just seconds before the Carolina defense could grab it. The lead would not last long, as minutes later, Alexander Semin would make a great individual effort and find a hole in the Buffalo goaltender, tying the game once again.
The game appeared to be heading to overtime as the minutes ticked by, but with less than a minute remaining, Buffalo would get the game winner. Ehrhoff would get his second of the game, circling the net and firing the puck into a mass of bodies in front of Ward. Replay would show that Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk would inadvertently tip the Ehrhoff shot past his goaltender, leading to a late period goal. For Carolina fans, the result rings eerily similar to multiple games the Hurricanes have played this season, giving up the game-tying or game-winning goal late in regulation. The play itself was a carbon copy of a loss the Hurricanes suffered in a game just before the Olympic break, where lax play late in the game allowed Chris Thorburn to score the game winner with just over a minute left in the game.
But Tuesday night, Ryan Miller was the story. In addition to his 36 saves, he recorded an assist on both Ehrhoff goals. The goaltender joked after the game that the last time he recorded two assists was when he played forward as a kid. He eventually switched to playing goaltender, and the game on Tuesday night provided evidence as to why. Miller’s play was the reason for the Sabres victory, as they beat the Carolina Hurricanes in the first game after the Olympic break, 3-2.
By Jonathan Gardner