One more day, and Tim Miller would have stayed scoreless for a full calendar year.
But against Michigan State Feb. 23, the junior’s 364-day scoreless streak came to an end. Miller scored not one, but two goals against the Wolverines’ in-state rival in their only triumph over the Spartans this year.
While the dreaded streak came to end in a brief, celebratory moment, Miller’s struggles have lasted throughout the top-ranked Wolverines’ historic season.
At the end of last year, Michigan coach Red Berenson chose Miller to don the alternate captain ‘A’ on his sweater. The two-way forward was coming off a 24-point season with a plus-13 rating. Berenson said he thought Miller looked like one of the team’s best forwards in Minnesota for the season-opening Ice Breaker Invitational in October.
After that, things went downhill.
As Michigan swept team after team, Miller went longer and longer without a goal.
“When the puck doesn’t go in, sometimes you psych yourself out and you make it even worse on yourself,” junior Travis Turnbull said. “You could tell he was really squeezing the sap out of his stick. He had some great chances, but when that would happen, he would kind of panic.”
As time progressed, Miller’s goal-scoring confidence decreased and he started passing the puck more.
“He’d be in great position (to score) and he’d try and make a pass to someone else and they wouldn’t expect it,” Berenson said. “And then it was a non-play that he should’ve shot.”
Turnbull added: “When you’re not playing well, it can be really miserable. If you make it to this level, hockey is your entire life. If it’s not going well and you’re working this hard everyday, it’s pretty tough.”
Associate head coach Mel Pearson also saw Miller’s frustration in practice.
“Just, ‘Wow, am I ever going to score?’ ” Pearson said. “It definitely plays with your mind. You probably think you’re never going to score again.”
Then, in December, Berenson took away Miller’s ‘A’ and awarded it to junior defenseman Mark Mitera.
It wasn’t as though Miller was playing badly. He was one of the team’s best penalty killers and defensive forwards, and was dishing out plenty of assists. He was playing multiple roles on the team, like filling in for first-liner Max Pacioretty, that weren’t showing up on the box score.
But the coaching staff wondered if the burden of being an alternate captain was holding him back.
“Sometimes if you have a letter it can really weigh on you a lot,” Pearson said. “You become so worked up and worried about everybody else and you forget about your own game a little bit. I’m not saying that happened to Tim, but we’ve seen that in the past.”
Turnbull could see how upset the usually-quiet Miller was with the decision. But according to Pearson, the junior reacted in a “very professional” manner and “handled it extremely well.”
At the Great Lakes Invitational just after the decision, Miller, who still does not feel comfortable addressing the issue, struggled even more. Though the Wolverines came away with the tournament title, Miller couldn’t convert on his numerous scoring chances.
But once he tallied two scores against the Spartans last month, Miller started to become more loose and relaxed. Berenson saw it as “a huge sigh of relief for him.”
And that offense reappeared during the CCHA Tournament. Miller tallied another pair of goals and two assists at Joe Louis Arena last weekend, a performance that earned him the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.
“You got to be happy for the guy,” Turnbull said. “He hasn’t had the season that we thought he’d have, or he thought he was going to have, but all that matters is finishing up the season and making plays down the stretch and he’s been playing really well as of late. We need that out of him.”