Olympic Hockey 2014: Ryan Miller Earns Another Chance to Become Mythical

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Olympic Hockey 2014: Ryan Miller Earns Another Chance to Become Mythical
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Four years. It's been nearly four years since Sidney Crosby took a sweet pass from Jarome Iginla and fired it between the pads of Ryan Miller to give Team Canada Olympic immortality.  

The look of shock on the Americans' faces was discernible. For Miller, it was all a blur. 

This wasn't how it was supposed to end, with the Canadians in a mob scene by the boards and a shell-shocked Miller kneeling between the pipes. In a flash it was all over, the prophecy unfulfilled, the mission incomplete. 

Team USA had been labeled the underdogs of the tournament, yet played like a front-runner every step of the way. They never trailed once going into the gold-medal game, and a large part of that was Miller's stifling play in goal.

"We went there to win," said Miller, per Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports.

He was named the MVP, but that did little to ease the devastation of giving up the final goal of the tournament. Most Conn Smythe trophies come pre-packaged with a celebratory lap around the hockey rink, holding aloft the Stanley Cup. An MVP honor is meaningless without that gold medal dangling from your neck. 

Now Miller will get a second chance to shine on the world stage again as one of three goaltenders that will represent the U.S. Men's Hockey Team in Sochi

This wasn't preordained by any means. Like everything else in his life, Miller had to work hard to get back his spot on the Olympic squad. He played three years with the Rochester Americans before becoming the starting goalie for the Buffalo Sabres. Before that he spent three years at Michigan State University where he won the Hobey Baker Award for college hockey's most outstanding player.   

He's 33 now, with a face free of the seams and markings that come with playing the world's roughest sport. He still doesn't have a ring. He still doesn't have a championship of any kind. He hasn't even won a playoff series in six seasons. On the year that the U.S. team fell to Canada, Miller's Sabres bowed out in the first round to a Bruins team led by rising star Tuukka Rask

The team he currently plays for has the worst record in the NHL with a paltry 15 wins. He may not even be on the same team anymore by the time he gets back to the states, but he remains locked in and focused with the same steely glare he fixes on shooters during a shootout—getting ready to take on the the world once again.    

Miller is currently among the NHL leaders in saves and his .923 save percentage is second amongst American goalies who have started 20 or more games. He's done this despite facing 1373 shots—the second most in the league—and only letting 106 of them in.   

Despite the new wave of goaltenders that have burst onto the scene since the Vancouver games, Miller has outplayed almost all of them, striving to regain the dominant form that screams his "Miller Time" moniker.  

“I want to make the team. I want to be the guy who’s there stopping pucks in Sochi. I want to start. I want to play," said Miller.

The Olympics tend to bring out the best in athletes. Before money there was pride, a insatiable thirst to prove to everyone else that you were the best at what you do. Miller is in the last year of a $30 million contract and while one would believe it, he would gladly trade any one of those years for a gold medal.

When asked by ESPN how he would prepare for another Olympic run, Miller answered:

I map everything out in my head. Where can I get my workouts in, my maintenance in, my full-body massage -- and still have time to walk the dog and hang out with my wife? It was something I planned 12 months out with my sports psychologist. "How's it going to feel? What's it going to be like? You're going to be the most prepared of anybody." I feel like I was a breath away from it in 2010. It almost worked.

That kind of myopia could be the fuel that propels Team USA deep into the tournament. While countries like Russia and Canada can outshoot, outhit and outskate anyone with their limitless depth and talent, there's no way of getting around a fortress in goal.  

Just ask the guy who was better at scoring goals than anyone on the planet, Wayne Gretzky, who took a cautious approach when weighing in on Canada's chances to win their second consecutive gold medal, via the Associated Press: 

"There's a number of teams that can win," said Gretzky, who played for Canada in Nagano and built its gold medal team in Salt Lake City. "It comes down to the same thing all the time: Best goaltender, and if your best player is the best player on the ice and the best line on the ice, your team is ultimately going to be the gold medal winner."

Remember last year's Eastern Conference Finals? On paper the Pittsburgh Penguins were favored in every aspect of the game besides goaltending, and they only managed to score six goals in a four-game sweep to the Bruins.

That's not to say Team Canada will experience the same struggles in Sochi, but unlike Olympic basketball, stacking a team with the best players in the world won't guarantee a blowout.

Or even a victory.  

During the Vancouver games, the Canadians learned that they couldn't dominate the competition even when they had five better players on the ice. Not when their goaltender was Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo and they were facing someone like Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller. Against the top two goalies in the tournament, Canada averaged under three goals per game, a significant drop from the six-and-a-half goals they banged in against everyone else.  

This year's dream team will be even more brutal: Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Shea Webber, Corey Perry…

The only cache of talent that comes close would include names like Ryan Getzlaf, Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron...wait, oh crap.  

As before, the U.S. will rely on their speedy defense and suffocating goaltending to counter the sharpshooters on Canada's special forces. Joining Miller in Sochi will be Conn Smythe recipient Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard, who surprisingly won the final spot over Ben Bishop and his impressive .933 save percentage.   

Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma has yet to declare who'll be starting in the first game to open up round-robin play on Thursday, only going as far to say that he doesn't believe in implementing a rotation. He does know that things can turn on a dime, however, via Yahoo! Sports

“I’ve certainly seen past circumstances where two goaltenders have played in a tournament and the team has gone on to have success,” he said. “Canada did it twice. I’m sure that was designed, in either of the last two. “

Miller knows the competition will be fierce, but it's also part of what made him so effective in Vancouver. With the former Vezina winner Tim Thomas challenging him for the starting position, Miller was forced to remain alert and leery in every period of every game, repelling a blizzard of pucks in the preliminaries and becoming almost impregnable during the elimination rounds. 

He's been on a similar grind this year playing for the most offensively inert team in the league, one that has him robbing shooters on breakaways and stretching out across the net to make highlight-reel saves.  

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

But Quick has remained on Miller's heels since coming back from a groin injury, going 5-7-2 with a .922 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA. Like Miller, Quick also plays an an aggressive goal—sometimes a little too aggressive, much to the delight of opposing fans—jumping out of his crease whenever the puck enters the zone.   

Goalies are light sleepers. They see pucks flying at them during their morning jogs and deep in the stages of REM. Though they only live in the crease for three hours a game, they live on the edge 24/7.  

While Quick's risky, live-free-or-die approach led the LA Kings to their first Stanley Cup title and made him the consensus No. 1 goalie for Team USA in Sochi, Miller has elevated his game on the ice the same way he did in 2009 when he surprisingly won the starting nod. 

He also set the bar high for himself after Vancouver. His 1.35 GAA and .946 save percentage were among the best in Olympic history, a remarkable odyssey that rivaled the performance of the legendary Jim Craig. Miller's outstanding level of play was immortalized when then White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wore his number (No. 39) on the back of the Canadian hockey jersey he donned during a live press conference as part of a losing bet. 

But the effort also took a toll on him. He never came close to putting up the same numbers in the years following the Olympics, regressing back to the same form that was a step behind the elite goaltenders in the league.  

Vancouver Games 2010

Another chance to shine in hockey's World Cup seems to have transformed Miller into the same force field that was last penetrated by The Next One, and it's likely going to stay charged even in a bigger rink thousands of miles away. Miller relished his time on the international stage, winning over the crowd with his dazzling play in goal while flashing one of the most awesome goalie masks ever invented.

He also showed a softer side of himself on camera when speaking about his Olympic experience:

"It was fun. It was a good tournament. Hopefully we made some hockey fans in the States...The U.S. really tuned in for it. We already have a lot of great fans, hopefully we made some new ones."

Hockey is still a cult sport in America. Maybe that's because it doesn't snow in several parts of the country or maybe because there's something sexier about games that feature a lot of offensive scoring.

But the way it brings people together every four years is extraordinary, creating a kind of unity among fans and strangers normally only seen in a World of Warcraft adventure. The 1980 gold-medal game between the United States and Finland remains the most watched hockey telecast in American history, as over 27 million viewers watched a gang of college kids pull off one of the most improbable runs in the history of international competition, providing some comforting euphoria during a time of political unrest and foreign crisis.  

That was the last time the U.S. hockey team won a gold medal. They thought they were going to win it again after Zach Parise's miracle goal in the waning seconds at Vancouver. In the end Canada had one more shot left in their quiver, and it left a determined team and a confident goaltender heartbroken.

And stunned.

Having already beaten the Canadians earlier in the tournament, there was only one conclusion Miller and his teammates imagined. 

“It was that time when you think you can do something and then you get some positive feedback and then you know you can do something," said Miller. "I think everybody in that room, we knew we could win."

“It was very disappointing. It is to this day. It’s not a sore subject anymore, but it’s bittersweet. It was a great two weeks. A lot of fun to play hockey at such a high level, in a place where they respect hockey. But it wasn’t the fairy tale ending.”

After an offseason that began in February 2010, Miller and his team have a chance to rewrite the same script, this time with a much more preferable alternate ending. 

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