Ryan Millers chats with reporters Thursday. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Reflective Miller aware 500th game could be last with Sabres, not angry at fans

BUFFALO – On the eve of what could be his 500th and final appearance with the Sabres, goalie Ryan Miller wouldn’t speculate about his future.

Instead, the 32-year-old mostly delved into a past that has made him one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

At times, Miller’s six-minute chat with the media Thursday sounded more like a goodbye than a reflection of his first 499 games.

He called Buffalo his “second home.” He smiled and spoke about becoming part of the community and giving back.

The former Vezina Trophy winner understands tonight’s season finale against the New York Islanders could end his 10-year run. The struggling Sabres, a playoff bystander two straight years, have already jettisoned some high-profile veterans.

In the wake of last Friday’s 8-4 home loss to the New York Rangers, a game he sarcastically saluted the crowd in between two Bronx cheers, Miller could be next.

On Thursday, Miller, who has one year left on his contract, wanted to make something clear.

“I’m not mad at the fans,” Miller said after preparing for the Isles inside the First Niagara Center. “It’s what I don’t understand. It’s the heat of the moment. You get emotional.”

It got ugly against the Rangers before Miller was mercifully yanked. It felt like he might never play another game for the Sabres.

“Some people were giving me some grief,” he said, “and I just picked my hand up, like, ‘OK, I hear you.’ It wasn’t a, ‘Screw you.’ It wasn’t a, ‘I hate you guys.’ It was, ‘You know what? I hear you. All right, enough. I get it. Just let me try to do what I got to do.’ It was just a tough game.”

Miller said he cares “about the people here.”

“I care a lot about being part of this community and a Buffalo Sabre,” he said. “It’s been frustrating not to kind of come through in times when we felt like we had a great group of guys and pushed a little bit further. But I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. I don’t know which way it’s going to go.”

He added: “I’m not going to talk like I’m gone.”

Miller bounced back nicely Tuesday in Pittsburgh, stopping 40 shots in a 4-2 win over the mighty Penguins. Following the game, he said he wanted to play tonight.

“That game worked out,” he said. “That’s how hockey is. It’s been disappointing for this room, this organization. I don’t think anybody takes it harder than I do. So I don’t think anybody should be able to question me or say I’m mad at the fans or I don’t respect or enjoy the fans here, and I’ve done more than my fair share to go out and prove that I’m part of this community and give back as much as I can.”

Miller’s milestone “means a lot,” he said. Sixty-one NHL goalies have already cracked 500 games. He would become the 20th netminder to reach it with one club and the 12th from that group to do it from the start of his career, according to the Sabres.

“I’d love to say I had some Stanley Cups to go along with this,” Miller said. “But that’s just the nature of things. Every year in this league is a difficult battle.”

In the “500 Club,” Miller’s .915 save percentage would rank fifth. Sabres legend Dominik Hasek (.922) is first. Miller’s 268 wins, a franchise record, would place 42nd.

“I believe he’s the best goalie in the world,” Sabres winger Drew Stafford said.

Interim Sabres coach Ron Rolston added: “To be able to play that many games and (enjoy) that kind of consistency and success is amazing.”

Miller won’t approach tonight’s start any differently than the first 499.

“I put the pads on. I try to do my best,” he said. “See where that goes.”

Miller, always reflective, recalled signing his professional contract nearly 11 years ago inside the FNC, then called HSBC Arena. He walked out and looked where the ice would be.

“I dreamed about playing one game in the NHL,” he said. “I’ve been able to play 499. So it’s pretty cool. I’ve just going to try to enjoy it.”

Game No. 1 came Nov. 19, 2002 in New Jersey against the Devils and iconic goalie Martin Brodeur.

“I remember the flight in more than anything,” Miller said. “It was a bad flight and it was my first NHL game. That was pretty special even though we ended up losing that game (4-3 in overtime).”

The Sabres took a 2-0 lead into the third period.

“Then I think I figured out where I was, playing against one of my heroes at the other end,” Miller said.

Miller cracked the NHL for good in 2005-06. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2010, the same year he backstopped Team USA to a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics, briefly becoming one of the country’s most popular athletes.

But he hasn’t sniffed much NHL team success since backstopping the Sabres to consecutive Eastern Conference final appearances in 2006 and 2007.

“It’s been some great moments here. It’s been some down moments,” Miller said. “It’s been the better part of a decade.”

That decade could be ending soon.

Related: Miller’s long Sabres career could be over after Friday’s ugly exit

Shellacking from Rangers eliminates Sabres from playoff contention

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