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 Bar-beau, 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.