Just one week after a night of ugliness between Miller and the Buffalo fans, the Sabres front office, the coaches and Miller himself cobbled together an almost perfect “feel good” night of hockey to try and put some of what happened in the past behind everyone, and move on to better things.
Few expected interim coach Ron Rolston to put Miller back on the home ice after what happened last week, but being Miller’s 500th career game, who would not want him to see him reach that milestone in a Buffalo uniform. So he got the start in net against the New York Islanders.
The team won, 2-1, in a shootout. It was one of those free wheeling, entertaining games that have been too few and far between this season at First Niagara Center. The players were having fun, the fans were oo-ing and aah-ing and chanting all night long, and few left the arena in the waning moments, when the norm is to see a trickle of fans leave their seats late in the contest even if the game is close.
It was Miller’s night to savor. And he did. He received pre game honors as team’s MVP, voted on by his fellow players. The audience applause wasn’t as robust as it could have been, but nobody jeered. The applause got a bit louder when the PA announcer informed the crowd that this was Miller’s 500th career start.
But it was the happenings at the end of the game that stole the show. Thomas Vanek was the only scorer for Buffalo in the shootout. In a poignant and symbolic gesture, Rolston inserted Jochen Hecht as the third shooter. He missed. Meantime, Miller was perfect during the shootout, stopping all three New York Islanders attempts, including the final one by John Tavares which had Miller backed up into almost the back of his own net. The referee waved no goal. Exhale.
Fans who won the “jerseys off our back” lined up to accept their coveted prizes from the players. Miller hung out the longest. He signed autographs for everyone. He exchanged a hug and kiss with an elderly lady on the ice. The game night crew was following their goaltender closely with the hand held camera, capturing the moments and beaming them onto the HD board.
All this did not take place by happenstance. The front office, the players, the coaches, and Ryan Miller desperately needed this reach out to the fans. They nailed it.
Miller held court with the media for a long spell in the locker room. For everyone, reality was setting in that Jochen Hecht would be leaving for good, and there was plenty of emotion in the air. Team owner Terry Pegula, an infrequent visitor to the post game gatherings, was there watching the whole scene. Hecht had his family present and battled tears as he had his turn before the microphones. Miller passionately talked about what the night meant to him. He was contrite and sincere. He won a few hearts back, even as he asserted that the future is full of uncertainty.
Sometimes the best public relations is not ignoring a problem, nor is it tackling it head on with assertive apologies and press conferences. Sometimes passive advocacy gets the best results. The front office, the PR crew, the team and their beleaguered goaltender scored a hat trick on Friday night. And that is something positive to build upon.