Sabres get vote as NHL's surprise team

CanWest News Service
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HOCKEY

If you want to talk about surprise teams in the National Hockey League this season, the Phoenix Coyotes top the list, coming out of bankruptcy to become one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

The Colorado Avalanche aren't far behind, closing in on a playoff spot after finishing dead last a year ago.

If you want to talk about surprise teams in the National Hockey League this season, the Phoenix Coyotes top the list, coming out of bankruptcy to become one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

The Colorado Avalanche aren't far behind, closing in on a playoff spot after finishing dead last a year ago.

And then there are the Buffalo Sabres.

After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Sabres are leading the Northeast Division and they are one of those teams nobody wants to meet in the playoffs.

That's because the Sabres have one of the key ingredients necessary for success - an outstanding goaltender.

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff tends to avoid hyperbole when discussing Ryan Miller, conceding only that "if you put together a list of the five or six best goaltenders in the NHL, he's in there."

Teammates like Craig Rivet and Tyler Myers will tell you that Miller is the best, and the folks at the International Ice Hockey Federation would agree.

Miller led a young United States team to the gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics.

Canada edged the U.S. in overtime, but Miller was selected as the outstanding goaltender in the tournament.

The Olympics served as a coming-out party for Miller.

Reflects city

This team reflects the gritty city it calls home. Its best-known forward is Thomas Vanek, whose claim to fame is that he's the best Austrian ever to play in the NHL.

He's the team's leading goal-scorer with 23, but that's considered a bit of a disappointment because he has topped 40 in two of the past three seasons and is making a hefty $7,142,857 US.

The team doesn't have a top-25 scorer in the NHL. In fact, Jason Pominville, with 21 heading into Friday's games, is the only other Sabre with more than 20 goals.

But the team does have Miller, who ranks third in goals-against average and No. 2 in save percentage.

And then there's Myers.

The Sabres felt they had a better team than the one that missed the playoffs by two points last season, but Ruff said Myers has been the wild card.

"We didn't know what Tyler Myers was going to bring," said Ruff. "You're looking at a guy who has been an impact player.

"You can't estimate what that's going to be before the year starts. But when you get to this part, you know how valuable he's been."

When Myers reported to the Sabres' training camp last fall as a 19-year-old, he was one of the few people who thought that he would stick with the team.

"I thought I had a chance," said the six-foot-eight, 222-pound Myers, who said he was able to relax only after he played his ninth NHL game and he was told he wasn't going back to junior hockey.

Myers, who turned 20 last month, ranks 12th among NHL defencemen with 41 points, is a plus-13 and is averaging nearly 24 minutes a game.

Those are the kind of numbers that will earn him rookie of the year honours.

Organizations: National Hockey League, Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche Buffalo Sabres International Ice Hockey Federation Vancouver Olympics

Geographic location: United States, Canada

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