It had been a long time since Rick DiPietro felt the love on home ice. After all, it was only his second start since returning and first at Nassau Coliseum in over a year. Against one of the conference's better teams, he outdueled Vezina candidate Ryan Miller in a thrilling 3-2 shootout victory before a happy crowd who showed him the love with the familiar, "D---P, D---P" chants.
“Always in the back of my mind I knew I’d be back to this point, sitting in front of you guys after a big win,” an emotional DiPietro said while repeatedly thanking everyone for their overwhelming support. “I am sure when I get a chance over the next couple of days to let it sink in I’ll be pretty excited.”
Fittingly, his first win didn't come easy. Not with the Sabres rallying back from a two-goal deficit on goals by Mike Grier and Drew Stafford. But DP didn't allow Stafford's putback with 11:25 left in regulation to spoil his much anticipated comeback in front of the hometown fans who supported him in unison. Facing his 2006 USA Olympic teammate, the 28 year-old who was making just his seventh start over two years kept the Islanders alive, stopping 11 of 12 shots in a third controlled by Buffalo. Their forecheck pinned the Isles deep, generating chances along with a 12-4 SOG edge. Only some sharp netminding allowed the hosts to reach extras.
Neither club could get one by the two American goalies, taking it to the skill competition. Here, DiPietro's mettle was really tested. After Rob Schremp went backhand deke upstairs in Round One, Jason Pominville went five-hole to tie it in the second frame. Following a Josh Bailey miss, Thomas Vanek's short side high shot missed a chance to clinch it for Buffalo. The drama continued when Matt Moulson beat Miller with a perfect forehand but DiPietro couldn't stop Stafford, who picked five-hole forcing another round. DP atoned by thwarting Derek Roy's bid with a strong pad stop from in tight, earning more "D---P" chants.
In Round Six, this time rookie John Tavares- who ended a 10-game drought with a putback of a Kyle Okposo shot- easily beat Miller forehand top shelf to once again give DiPietro the chance to clinch it. This time, it was Jochen Hecht who extended it by shooting over a sprawled DP, who committed too early to groans. Both Okposo and Clarke MacArthur were denied forcing it into Round Eight. Scott Gordon sent out Trent Hunter and he didn't disappoint, moving in tight before wiring one off the bar and in. With the Isles one big save away from jumping back into the top eight, the spotlight was all DiPietro's. Curiously, Lindy Ruff chose instigator Patrick Kaleta over Tyler Myers. With it on the line, Kaleta made a good move but his forehand deke try was forced wide by a quicker DP, who pumped his fists before teammates mobbed the emotional goalie.
“I was trying not to cry on the ice,” DiPietro expressed while sporting a neat mustache and goatee. “That’s the one thing I told myself. I wouldn’t cry. It’s an emotional time for me. It’s been a long time coming, been a rough road. Just to get the win was amazing.”
"I can't tell you how good this feels," he added of putting the Islanders in eighth a point behind the Rangers. "It's satisfying, but there's still a lot of work to be done. You can't get complacent."
Now that he's back, the bigger question is can he sustain it. The good news for the Islanders is they have Dwayne Roloson, who's done a great job. That should make Gordon's job easier as he won't have to overplay DiPietro.
"When we can stop talking about this, it will be a great day, but it's on me to stay healthy and prove to everyone that I'm back at 100 percent," DP assessed. "It's up to me to try to avoid situations where I put myself in danger of getting hurt, but I'm gonna play the way I'm accustomed to playing."
As for the coach, he praised his guy for being more patient after all the knee surgeries.
"Looking back on it, I never felt I really knew how bad he was hurt," Gordon said. "He did a good job of making us believers and to his credit, he wanted to play. Unfortunately, he had an injury where you couldn't fool your body. It just wouldn't allow him to do the things he needed. This year he didn't try to hurry it up, he went about it the right way."
Now, maybe the Islanders will reap the benefits.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Drew Stafford, Buf (tying goal w/11:25 left in regulation, SO goal, +1 in 14:04)
2nd Star-John Tavares, NYI (goal ended 10-gm drought, SO goal, 5 SOG in 16:55)
1st Star-Rick DiPietro, NYI (31 saves incl.11/12 in 3rd, 5/8 in shootout)