It was basically a penalty shot. Mike Vigilante, an explosive
left wing for Lake Superior State, had picked the pocket of a
Michigan State defenseman and skated in alone on goaltender Ryan
Miller. Pessimists among the Michigan State faithful in the
sellout crowd at the school's Munn Ice Arena had the same
thought: So much for the record.
The lanky sophomore in net for the Spartans had been on an
infernal roll, coming into the game with a record of 19-1-4.
Amazingly, Miller had pitched shutouts in four of his previous
five starts. One more bagel would give him 16 in his brief
collegiate career. That would tie a 70-year-old intercollegiate
record held by one Wally Easton, who backstopped Clarkson
College, in Potsdam, N.Y., from 1927 to '31. But with Vigilante
bearing down on Miller seven minutes into the second period on
Jan. 23, it looked like tying the record would have to wait.
Then Miller did something startling. He skated far out of the
crease, attacking his attacker. The aggression seemed to fluster
Vigilante, as Miller stonewalled the left wing's shot at the
goaltender's five-hole--the space between his legs. It was the
most memorable of the 21 saves Miller made in a 3-0 Spartans
victory. Move over, Wally. As the Munn crowd chanted in the
game's final seconds, "Miller time! Miller time!"
The surname Miller has a familiar ring in East Lansing. In
addition to being the hottest goalie in the NCAA--his 1.23
goals-against average, .953 save percentage, 20 wins and eight
shutouts lead the nation--Ryan boasts its finest hockey pedigree.
He is a third-generation Spartan whose grandfather, father, uncle
and five cousins have all laced on skates for the green and
white. By the time Ryan was 12, he was stopping shots fired by
his cousins Kelly, Kevin and Kip Miller, all of whom were either
in or destined for the NHL. "At first they'd just sort of flip
'em at me," recalls Ryan. "But as time went on, and I had success
stopping them, they'd snipe me up pretty good."
He is the first goalie to fall from the Miller family tree, and
therein lies a tale. "He'd be sitting in my lap at the Munn Arena
when he was two or three years old, and he couldn't take his eyes
off the goalie," says Ryan's father, Dean, a forward for the
Spartans in the late '70s. "I'd think, hmmm, that's weird. We
might have a goalie here."
Dean, who wanted Ryan to learn the game from a forward's
perspective, made a deal with his five-year-old son. He could
play goalie when he turned 10, and then only, said Dean "if
you'll promise me you'll work hard to be the best goaltender you
can be." Ryan gave his word.
At 16 Ryan moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., 260 miles north of
East Lansing, where he billeted with a family and finished high
school. While there he starred for the Soo Indians of the North
American Hockey League, a junior league, and began working with
goalies coach Terry Barbeau, a stickler for technique and
positioning. Miller is the stylistic opposite of such thrashing
contortionists as Dominik Hasek of the Sabres and Curtis Joseph
of the Maple Leafs. There is an elegant efficiency to Miller's
play--the appearance of effortlessness--that was drilled into him
by Barbeau, who taught him how to play percentages, cut down
angles and use his body to take as much of the net as possible
from the shooter.
"Ryan is always in position," says Barbeau. "When the shooter
looks up, all he sees is Ryan Miller." Ask Mike Vigilante.
After three years in Sault Ste. Marie, home also of Lake Superior
State, Miller accepted a scholarship to Michigan State, shocking
exactly no one. Although the Sabres took him in the fifth round
of the '99 NHL entry draft, he is in no rush to leave East
Lansing, partly because Buffalo is loaded at goalie and partly
because, at 6'2", 160 pounds, Miller needs to add muscle before
jumping to the NHL. Standing bare-chested in the dressing room
and wearing only a pair of padded hockey pants held up by
suspenders, he calls to mind, in the words of Spartans assistant
athletic director John Lewandowski, "a man preparing to go over
Niagara Falls in a barrel."
His teammates have dubbed him Quadzilla--a sarcastic reference to
the less-than-formidable musculature in his legs. Miller laughs
along with them. He knows he has their respect, just as he basks
in the pride of his father. While keeping opponents off the
scoreboard and the Spartans at the top of the national rankings,
Miller is keeping an old promise.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG Last week Michigan State's Miller equaled the collegiate shutout record.