PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH -- It was an early morning in late February, and Kelly Miller was walking toward the training room when Todd Krygier spied him down the hallway at the Washington Capitals training facility.
"Hey, Kelly, I was just asked if you earn your money," said Krygier, smiling. "I said you did."
Miller cringed ever so slightly. At that point in the season, "the money", the $1.8 million he is earning this season after re-signing with the Capitals as a free agent, was hanging around his neck like the proverbial albatross.
Nearly every fan walking into an arena to see the Caps play knew how much Miller was making. And when the Capitals struggled and Miller had trouble scoring, it wasn't hard to hear the team's fans grumble as they filed out after a loss.
Big bucks in the NHL are supposed to translate into big goals.
But for two-thirds of this season, that wasn't the story with Miller. But then, he's never been one to be obsessed with stats.
"My happiness in this game comes from the team winning," he said. "I've never put up fantastic numbers. That's not what I've done. I can't expect myself, all of a sudden, now that they're paying me more, to do something that I've never done. The fans are interested in a winning team and there is a lot more to winning than scoring."
Even now, as his fortunes have changed, stats still don't tell much about what Washington's well-respected defensive forward does.
They don't tell anything about his work ethic, though they do say something about his consistency -- he has missed only five games in seven seasons with Washington, while averaging 40 points.
This season, despite a sub-par start, Miller finished the regular season in a rush to come within one point of his average, with 14 goals and 25 assists. His four game-winning goals have tied him with Mike Ridley and Michal Pivonka for second-most on the team behind Randy Burridge's five.
Miller ended the regular season with a six-game, point-scoring streak (five goals and two assists), including the goal that many consider the biggest one of the Capitals season.
That came on April Fools Day against New Jersey with 46 seconds left. It gave the Caps a 2-1 victory and helped position them to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Civic Arena.
"I don't know why things have changed," said Miller. "Our whole team played bad for more than 40 games. Then [coach Jim] Schoenfeld came and it created a new atmosphere. It created some excitement and a challenge and it felt like a new start for me. I've been working hard all year, but right now, I'm in a groove. I've found a bit of rhythm and things are going my way.
"But the important thing is to do well in the playoffs."
After tonight, the best-of-seven series continues with Game 2 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and then returns to USAir Arena for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Saturday.
"I try to be a good two-way forward," said Miller. "To get 40 to 50 points and not be on the power play, that's pretty good. And given the frustration of this season, as tough as the first part was, to have this many points and to be playing at plus-10 on the plus-minus chart, I'm pretty happy."
For $1.8 million, most teams would want a major goal scorer. In Boston, Adam Oates led the Bruins in points with 112, and makes $1.3 million. Cam Neely, who scored 50 goals in 49 games, makes $1 million. The Vancouver Canucks' pay Pavel Bure (60 goals, 47 assists) $930,000.
Players such as Miller, who muck in the corners, kill penalties and spend most of their time closing down the other team's top forwards, generally make considerably less.
New York Rangers defensive forward Craig MacTavish makes $550,000. The Chicago Blackhawks' Brent Sutter makes $775,000.
But there are always aberrations. The Detroit Red Wings' Sergei Fedorov, second only to Wayne Gretzky in scoring this season, until recently made just $295,000.
And then there's Miller. He took the risk of playing out his option and won big -- for doing a job that some would argue Steve Konowalchuk ($250,000) is growing into.
But even when Miller hasn't been playing that well, the Capitals have needed him.
That need stretches back to before the 1992-93 season, when Washington traded away star Dino Ciccarelli. It intensified last season, when star defenseman Rod Langway moved into an uneasy retirement. Until the Caps traded defenseman Al Iafrate for the 100-point potential of center Joe Juneau last month, management had been criticized by fans because of its unwillingness to spend money -- to either keep its good players or to get a franchise player from elsewhere.
Given all that, they couldn't let a reliable, long-time player like Miller -- only the sixth man in Caps history to play 600 games in the uniform -- go for nothing in free agency. Capitals president Dick Patrick says, "a lot of it was to show the fans we had a willingness to spend money to have the best team. We've had a lot of second-guessing, and I guess we've second-guessed ourselves."
If someone wants to know about Miller, they have to look beyond the stat sheets.
Last summer, the San Jose Sharks took a long look and liked what they saw so much they made the Lansing, Mich., native and former Michigan State star an amazing offer: A $1 million signing bonus and $800,000 this year and next, plus an option for two more at $500,000.
"Since I've been in the NHL, I've just worked hard," said Miller, 31. "Nothing ever came easy. And then, it was just a great feeling to have someone come to me and say 'We think you're great.' It seemed like a reward for all the hard work I've put in. A team going out of its way to get me made me feel terrific."
As to whether Miller has played like a $1.8 million man this season, Capitals general manager David Poile is diplomatic.
"His play has been taken up a notch since Schoenfeld has taken over," Poile said.
"We all needed a kick start. With Kelly, I find the better our team plays, the better effect Kelly Miller has on our team. That means we need someone else to score. But we have no regrets from matching the offer. He's been a big reason why we've had any success."
Schoenfeld describes Miller as "a completely different player," since the home-and-home series with Florida on Feb. 24 and 26.
"I don't know why," said Schoenfeld. "But he has changed. I think it's just his personal determination."
Miller comes from a family of achievers. His brothers, Kevin (St. Louis) and Kip (San Jose's Kansas City farm team), both play pro hockey, and his sister Kirsten is qualified to compete at the highest levels in figure skating, freestyle and ice dancing with the U.S. Figure Skating Association and teaches figure skating in Lansing.
His mother, Marie, was a figure skater and later an instructor at Michigan State. His father, Lyle, a Michigan State hockey player, became a banker with interests in the Lansing Ice and Gymnastics Centre.
"My mom taught me the fundamentals of skating and my dad helped me to learn the hockey part of it," Miller said. "When I was growing up, my dream was to earn a scholarship and play for Michigan State. My fondest memories are of being allowed to go with Dad, who worked as a linesman at some of MSU's games and could get us in the locker room. I'd go and they'd give us broken sticks and stuff. It was great."
These days, it is Miller who is often seen giving away his broken sticks to wide-eyed children. And it is Miller who continues to try to prove the Capitals made the right decision to keep him.
Krygier's playful thrust in late February may have been just another challenge. Whatever happened, Miller has begun paying off for the Capitals just in time.
Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins
Site: Civic Arena, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio: Channel 20/WMAL (630 AM)
Outlook: The Capitals go into Pittsburgh tonight knowing they won the regular-season series, 2-1-1. They also go in knowing they play well on the road, having produced the seventh-best road record with a .536 winning percentage. The Penguins, on the other hand, are the third-most successful team in the league at home, with a .690 winning percentage. The Caps report Shawn Anderson (ankle) is day-to-day.