STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
Lots of pressure on St. Louis Blues goalie Ryan Miller to deliver
St. Louis goalie Ryan Miller will be in the pipes as St. Louis battles Chicago on Thursday in Game 1. (USA TODAY)
He’s the cherry atop the sundae that makes Emeril Lagasse say, “BAM!”
Ryan Miller’s arrival in the Gateway City is supposed to topple the king in a chess game between masters.
The expectations placed upon Miller are simple: His abilities between the pipes are to elevate the St. Louis Blues from very good to great.
Great, as in Stanley Cup champions and nothing short.
Is it a pressure-packed spot for Miller? You bet.
But that’s the reality facing the 33-year-old netminder right now, and everybody’s watching to see how he deals with it.
Some players relish that level of scrutiny. Some are driven by it.
Miller says it’s just part of the gig.
“I’m just another piece. I’m trying to take that approach,” he said following Wednesday’s practice in anticipation of opening the playoffs Thursday against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“I don’t feel it’s a make-or-break situation. I’m another piece to a team we think could be really good. We all have to do our part, so I come here and just do my job — stop pucks, compete, be a good professional, be a good teammate, and see how it all ends up. It’s a tough job to win a Stanley Cup and it’s a team effort, not one person doing it. I’m trying to just slot in and be a piece.”
That’s fine and dandy, but let’s be honest: The Blues didn’t acquire Miller, a pending unrestricted free agent, via trade from the Buffalo Sabres to be just another piece.
He’s counted on to be the piece de resistance.
You don’t surrender goalie Jaroslav Halak, potential 30-goal scorer Chris Stewart, a decent junior-aged prospect in William Carrier, a first-round pick in 2015 and possibly another first-rounder the next year — at worst, it’s a third-rounder in 2016 — for a “piece.”
St. Louis is still searching for the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Since joining the league, it’s been painfully close, but never made the final ascent.
Miller’s arrival is supposed to put that disappointing history in the past.
“Ryan’s world class, the most professional hockey player I’ve ever played with, probably,” said forward Steve Ott, who was the other acquisition for the Blues in that trade with the Sabres, but has nowhere near the pressure of the netminder.
“I’m sure he’s relishing and excited for this opportunity, to be in front or behind a great team already. He’s a world-class goalie and I expect him to be throughout the playoffs.”
As much as Miller has achieved through his career, the questions abound.
He twice backstopped the Sabres to the Eastern Conference final, but no further.
He was named MVP and top goaltender at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, but didn’t win gold, losing to Canada in overtime.
And then, consider how the Blues limped into the playoffs, having lost six straight — although the slew of injuries that ravaged their forward ranks had more to do with the slump than Miller’s play.
“The goals-against wasn’t exactly ideal, but I don’t think it was too bad. I don’t know, what do you guys think?” Miller said of his performance down the stretch. “I’m sure there’s some talk about that, but I’m not too worried about it. It’s all zeroes now. It’s a matter of stopping the puck now.
“I’ve learned some things about playing with this group the last month-and-a-half, and I feel I’ve built my game to be in a good place come this time of year.”
The final test of whether that’s true will only be passed by racking up 16 wins and hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug, but Miller insists he’s ready for what’s coming and ready to battle for it.
“You want to be known as somebody that competes, that’s the main thing,” he said. “That means you’re not giving up on plays, you’re on the puck, your awareness is good. That’s what you’re gonna have to do for the next two months if you’re gonna do it right.”
On Twitter: @SunRandySportak
BLACK AND BLUES
Need him. Got him. Got him. Got him. Maybe got him. Got him …
Welcome to the world of the St. Louis Blues coaches as they cobble together their lineup for the start of the Stanley Cup chase.
The Blues were decimated by injuries to their forward ranks in the final few weeks of the regular season, but it appears they will have almost everybody at their disposal when they meet the Chicago Blackhawks in Thursday’s best-of-seven series opener.
The only players who didn’t skate in Wednesday’s session were forwards T.J. Oshie, who practised fully on Tuesday, and Patrik Berglund.
“Don’t read anything into it,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock, who noted some players fully participating were “testing the waters” and some who didn’t are expected to play in the opener.
“We are literally gonna (have) game-time decisions every day for a while, here. So, what you saw today, it’s a good chance won’t be what you see tomorrow.
“We’d like to say these are our four lines and these are our six defencemen and away we go, but we can’t do that.”
David Backes and Vladimir Sobotka were on the ice, as expected. The surprise sighting was Vladimir Tarasenko, who missed the final 15 games due to a hand injury, not only skating on a regular line but partaking in power-play drills.
This being the playoffs, Hitchcock wouldn’t say whether Oshie had a setback, but added he expects everybody who missed games down the stretch to be available at some point in the series.
That said, it’s expected guys will play even if they’re not 100%.
“You’re gonna play through pain and new things are going to start to hurt, but you’re playing for something you’re dreamed about since you were a little kid,” said Backes, who has a noticeable limp and was donning a walking boot after the session.
The Blackhawks appear to be in good shape, especially with the news captain Jonathan Toews and slick scorer Patrick Kane are healthy enough to be back in the lineup.