Friday, January 18, 2008

First-Year All-Star DiPietro carrying Islanders

Maybe Mike Milbury was right. The former Islander GM now TSN analyst was frequently referred to as "Mad Mike" for his crazy penchant for blockbuster trades while he was on Long Island.
The biggest move had to be the selection of goaltender Rick DiPietro first overall back in 2000- making the former BU standout the first ever netminder to be taken that high.
At the time, Milbury had another No.1 franchise goalie which led to second guessing on why he went for DiPietro when Roberto Luongo was still there. That same day, he shipped Luongo to the Panthers along with Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Not one of his finest hours.
The thinking was that DiPietro was a much better stickhandling goalie than Luongo, who turned into a great puckstopper and one of the game's elite goalies. Had Milbury not taken the cocky kid from Massachusetts who Fishstick fans refer to as "Di-Pi" after big saves, he could've selected either Dany Heatley or Marian Gaborik changing the entire look of the franchise.
You can always look back and say, 'What if.' It's much easier to do that than to notice how well DiPietro is playing today. Now 26, he's carrying his team to victories- frequently turning aside a lot of rubber in stoning opponents who leave the rink baffled at how they couldn't beat the first-year All-Star.
The latest victim was his favorite opponent in first place division rival New Jersey. After standing on his head to the tune of 37 saves including turning aside 15 of 16 in a busy final stanza, DiPietro was not surpringly selected the game's No.1 Star in their 3-1 road win at The Rock Wednesday. Against a quality opponent, he improved to 4-0 this season while his team made it a perfect five-for-five with backup Wade Dubielewicz doing his part in their prior win at Nassau Coliseum when DiPi was out.
On a team which doesn't score a ton (112 GF, 2.43 Avg in 46 GP) and whose D isn't lights out by any stretch, DiPietro usually is asked to be his team's best player. He sees better than 28 shots-per-night. Despite his team giving up 14 more goals than they've scored, their 23-18-5 record for 51 points under second-year coach Ted Nolan has them sitting seventh in a crowded East only four behind the Devils and Pens.
The biggest reason is DiPi. Both teammates and opponents are taking notice.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist, does it?" explained Devils left wing Patrik Elias to the Associated Press of his team's recent struggles against the Isles after being robbed point blank by a DiPietro glove in the second period. "They are playing well against us. They are playing well against Philly and us.
Those are big points to lose. We had our opportunities to get back in the game, but it's still disappointing to lose. Their goaltender played awesome tonight."
The biggest stops came on Devil captain Jamie Langenbrunner with under six minutes left and Dainius Zubrus with less than 90 seconds to go before teammate Bill Guerin sealed the victory with an empty netter- his second of the night.
"There were a couple of pucks whacked away and I was able to get my glove up on it," DiPietro admitted later of the Zubrus quality chance within 10 feet.
It was easy to see why the Islanders won. Something Nolan referred to pointing to the man "between the goalposts."
"Tonight, Ricky saved us a couple of points," Islander captain Guerin pointed out.
"I thought we played a solid game, but when they turned it up and got good scoring opportunities, Ricky was there. He saved at least four goals I can think over. He kept us in it. He's been doing it all year for us."
As he's been all season for this gritty resilient bunch who want to shock the hockey world by making the postseason for a second straight year when nobody gave them a realistic chance after leading scorer Jason Blake (signed w/Leafs) and Ryan Smyth (Avs) left for richer pastures.
The Islanders have taken eight of the first nine against the Devils (5-0-0) and Rangers (3-1-0)-turning the Battle of New York into a one team show because of No.39 who will get his opportunity to shine in Atlanta less than two weeks away. He's the first Islander goalie to become an All-Star in 30 years since Hall of Famer Billy Smith in 1978. Not bad company. We'll bet Fishstick fans are hoping for similar results.
Every night, he gives his team a chance to win. He's faced 30-or-more shots a jaw dropping 19 times posting a respectable 9-6-4 record with a 2.60 GAA and an outstanding .927 save percentage.
His big saves are what keeps the Fishsticks in these type of pressure games. If they're to continue winning, it will once again fall on the broad shoulders of their franchise netminder. It took a few years but it looks like Milbury's mad gamble is finally paying off.
You won't find many complaints on Long Island.

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