- Jim Kelley
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Kevin Miller remembers his days playing at Michigan State University when he and some teammates would be scratching around looking for a goaltender to shoot at during some extra workouts.
Invariably they would turn to Kevin's cousin, Ryan, a 12-year old who lived nearby.
"We'd go down and get him out of bed, and he'd get his gear on, and I'll tell you we had a darn hard time beating him," Miller said. "I mean he was 12, and he was stopping shots left and right."
Fast forward a little more than 10 years and little Ryan Miller -- an eventual standout goalie for Michigan State (1999-2002), the 2001 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner as top player in U.S. college hockey, and one of the better goalies in the American Hockey League this season -- is back in the NHL. So too is Kevin Miller.
"They used to pull me out of bed because they couldn't find anyone else," Ryan Miller said before facing Kevin and the Detroit Red Wings in HSBC Arena. "It was fun, our families were close, we used to play together all the time."
Wednesday is the first time Ryan will face any of his older cousins on NHL ice. Kevin's younger brother, Kip, plays for the Washington Capitals. Their oldest brother, Kelly, retired in 2000 and was behind the bench of the Islanders when Ryan played them last season.
"It's going pretty good for him," said Kevin, a call-up from Grand Rapids of the AHL while the Red Wings battle a spate of injuries. "He's in the pros now, and he had a good college career and has some experience in the world tournaments. I think it's only a matter of time for him before he finds his niche at this level. Even back then we really didn't let up on him a whole lot. He was good back then, too."
Jason Woolley, another MSU product, used to participate in some of those morning skates. Woolley, a former Sabres defenseman now with the Red Wings, said Ryan Miller was intense even as a kid. "He went after every shot," Woolley said. "He was very aggressive. I had a hard time beating him then, too."
Though Ryan Miller is playing because of a freak injury to starter Mika Noronen, whose neck was cut by Chris Drury's skate in practice earlier this week, it's worth noting that he was recalled from Rochester before Noronen got hurt in practice Tuesday. It's also worth noting that he's getting the start over Martin Biron, who started the season as the Sabres No. 1 goalie.
"Even as a kid we knew two things," Kevin Miller said. "We knew he was going to be big, because his father was big, and we knew he was going to be good.
"Even back then it seemed that every shot he was able to play it perfectly. He does that now, and he seems to always control the rebounds, the puck always stays around him. When he was around 16, he was still hanging around with those Michigan State teams and practicing with them, and he was better than some of the Michigan State goalies."
A fifth-round pick, 138th overall, in the 1999 draft, Miller finished his college career with a 73-18-12 record and an NCAA record 26 shutouts. In three seasons with the Spartans, he climbed to fourth in career wins (73), fifth in games played (106) and first in goals-against average (1.54), save percentage (.941) and shutouts. He left East Lansing to sign with the Sabres in August of 2002 and played in the NHL's YoungStars game the following season.
He's considered an heir apparent in Buffalo. Depending what he does in the next little while, his time may well be approaching faster than anyone thought.
"He needs to find a spot where he's No.1 and then go from there," Kevin Miller said. "He got that role at Michigan State, and he ran with it. He was really solid there, and he seems to be off to a great start here (as a pro). I think if the opportunity presents itself, he could be part of something really good."
After starting the Sabres' first two games of the season -- a 2-0 loss at Philadelphia and 6-0 loss to the Islanders -- Miller was sent to Rochester, where he compiled a 8-6-4 record with a 1.58 GAA and .945 save percentage.
"It's been two months -- I've been waiting to come back off that Islanders game," Ryan Miller said. "It's different (when you get sent to the minors) after a loss like that. It takes you a little while to get over it. I just want to prove I can bounce back."
The same might also be said for Kevin Miller.
At the time of his recall, he had 10 goals and eight assists in 24 games, not bad for a free-agent signee.
Getting one past his cousin might go a long way toward keeping him around for a further look.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller honed his craft by bailing out his cousins.