Ryan Miller's injury is, taken in context, one of the most crippling blows to a single team's playoff hopes that we've seen this season. The severity of the ankle sprain he suffered in a collision with Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers on Saturday night hasn't been determined yet, but know this: Without Miller, the Sabres will be watching either the Carolina Hurricanes or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Sure, we've seen teams overcome injuries to star goalies before; hell, the No. 3 seed in the East lost one of the best keepers in the history of the League earlier this season, right?
But Miller's loss is different because it came on Feb. 21, after several months that established him as a Vezina-caliber goalie and the one constant for a Sabres team that's had its share of injury turmoil and inconsistent play throughout the lineup. Even when the team lost Thomas Vanek to a broken jaw, Miller was the primary reason why you still couldn't write off the Sabres.
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Depending on Miller's injury, Buffalo could be backstopped by Patrick Lalime, who hasn't won a start in over two months, or some deadline newbie that won't have the gravitas Miller brought to the ice every start. (Could you envision a scenario where Miller's out and the guy who replaces the star goalie is ... Scott Clemmensen of the New Jersey Devils?)
We'll learn a lot about the Sabres without Miller, although one columnist argues we already have when they didn't respond following his injury. But first, about that injury: Did Scott Gomez intend to hurt the franchise goalie of a conference rival?
Here's the Gomez/Miller collision from other the weekend:
First, let's dispel this myth that injurious, nasty moments in hockey can't come from guys who "aren't the type of players to do that sort of thing." I cringe whenever I hear that, because it always seems like a blanket excuse for the faux-Lady Byngs to play recklessly and then not face the same repercussions as a repeat offender.
Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff went batty over this Gomez play, as he usually does when someone takes a physical liberty with one of his players. But he's wrong to call out Gomez here, and we're back in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Larry Brooks of the NY Post: It was a just a good, aggressive hockey play that went haywire.
"I don't think there's any secret it was deliberate," said Ruff, who apparently is wired into Gomez's brain. "He knew what he was doing."
Gomez was trying to retrieve a soft dump-in behind the net when he bumped Miller. That's what he was doing. He was not penalized on the play. And though Ruff shouted at him from the bench, no Sabre sought retaliation throughout the duration of the match.
"It was an accident, that's all it was," Gomez said following the match. "I've never had the reputation of being a cheap shot guy or of going after goaltenders.
"I stopped and kind of lost my balance. That's when we ran into each other. Ryan was playing the puck. I didn't really know what had happened. It wasn't a cheap shot by any means.
"It was an accident."
Indeed. Accidents will happen, we only hit and run, you used to be a victim now you're not the only one. Got it.
But here's the thing: Accidental injuries shouldn't mean a lack of response from a team that just saw its franchise goalie go down on a hockey play. Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News took the Sabres to task for failing to enact any vengeance:
Ruff was irate on the bench. The guys on the ice acted as if Gomez had sent Miller a pajama-gram. There was no sense of outrage or anger. That's the problem with this team, and why it's hard to take it seriously as a Stanley Cup contender.
Whenever the Sabres face a physical challenge, their soft, finesse personality exerts itself. How long have we been witnessing this sort of thing? How many times have teams taken liberties with Buffalo goalies and skated away without paying a price? The last time it happened, Rob Ray was still active and Dominik Hasek was in goal.
OK, so they didn't have the toughest group on the ice at the time. So what? It's not as if Gomez is the ultimate fight champ. The situation begged for someone to respond. Miller crawled back to his crease with a sprained ankle. That sight alone should have inspired someone to skate the length of the ice and level Lundqvist.
"Leveling Lundqvist" is a little too eye-for-an-eye for my tastes, and if you're going to challenge Sullivan's comments you can start by reminding him that it was the third period of a crucial game still in question and that this Sabres team isn't exactly the Rob Ray rapscallions of yesteryear.
Still, his comments are generally sound: No fights after Miller goes down, and a pattern of behavior from a team this season that indicates a soft side unbecoming of what will be a Thunderdome of an Eastern Conference playoff. From Sullivan:
The classic Sabres response: Let the refs take care of it. Maybe some of the softer Sabres can get their big brothers to stick up for them. Or maybe their big sisters. Something has to change if they're going to survive the physical battle of wills at Stanley Cup time. Of course, Tim Connolly could always finesse teams to death.
There's been an essential lack of toughness on the Sabres since Mike Grier and Jay McKee went out the door. There I go again, bringing up the past. When was the last time one of their defenseman put a real hurting on someone? No one is afraid to play them. Why would anyone fear this bunch after watching video of Gomez's hit?
No, they wouldn't. But that has more to do with the goalie he took out than the lack of any Sabres players trying to do the same to Gomez.
Now it's just a matter of time to see if this is the same kind of "mild" ankle sprain that kept Marc-Andre Fleury on the shelf for 36 games last season. It's a simple equation for Buffalo: No Miller, no playoffs.