Lindy Ruff, despite an often steely exterior, is a sucker for a feel-good story. So as the Buffalo Sabres coach began talking about Wade Dubielewicz on Monday, a smile began to form on his face. The more Ruff thought and talked about the New York Islanders goaltender, the more omnipresent his grin became.
"Dubie" is having that effect on people.
The Sabres and Islanders have a date in the first round of the NHL playoffs, and Dubielewicz is the biggest reason why. The 28-year-old has gone from career minor leaguer to NHL backup to the league's First Star in less than a month. He is the toast of Long Island after putting together a four-game winning streak, including two victories via shootout, to vault the Islanders into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Oh, yeah. One of those shootout victories just happened to come on the final day of the regular season, with the fates of New York and Toronto resting on his goalie stick.
"It's a great story for them," Ruff said. "You look at it, somebody had said it would be a lot of shock if one playoff spot came down to a shootout, and it came down to a shootout. The rookie goaltender ends up stealing the show. It couldn't get more exciting for him. You get a chance to play, and then you get to play in that situation for a playoff spot, and then it comes down to a shootout no less.
"I look at that, what a dream come true for him."
The Sabres and Islanders begin their seven-game series Thursday in HSBC Arena, and both teams took Monday off. It gave Dubielewicz a chance to come down to earth after his greatest professional moment. Following Sunday's 3-2 victory over New Jersey -- punctuated with his poke check on the Devils' final shooter -- he drove home to Connecticut to see his wife and 5-week-old son, answering calls from well-wishers the entire time.
"I'm not going to lie to you. It's been pretty crazy. It's pretty fun to take it in," he told Newsday on Monday. "Tonight I'm going to give myself a bit of a reality check."
Why bother? He's been waiting four years for a shot at the big time, so there's little reason to shrug off the fun now.
His rise began when Islanders franchise goalie Rick DiPietro took a knee to the head March 13. DiPietro missed two games with concussion symptoms, then returned to play four times. But his headaches came back, and he hasn't practiced with the team since March 25. He was scheduled to visit a neurologist Monday.
Dubielewicz was summoned from the American Hockey League to back up Mike Dunham. After the starter faltered badly, the Isles turned to Dubielewicz. The former University of Denver star, who has spent four seasons at Bridgeport, went 4-1 and stopped 185 of 198 shots for a .934 save percentage. The NHL on Monday named him the week's First Star.
"I've been waiting for an opportunity like this my whole life, and I wanted to make the most of it," Dubielewicz said. "I've done that to this point. If I'm fortunate enough to get the start [in Game One], if Ricky's not ready or what have you, hopefully I can continue to do the same thing."
During a question about Dubielewicz, Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere immediately thought back to his days as a 9-year-old perched in front of the television set. The Quebec native saw flashes of an unknown named Patrick Roy winning over and over for the Montreal Canadiens.
"Sometimes all you need, and especially for a goalie, you just need to get hot at the right time," Briere said. "I remember growing up, nobody knew about Patrick Roy the first time he won the Cup in '86. He came in the playoffs and just got hot, and look at his career now.
"You can't take that for granted. It doesn't matter where he's played before. If somebody gets hot in the playoffs, the confidence gets rolling, and sometimes it's tough to stop that. We can't think that it's going to be easy because they have a goalie who's played most of the year in the AHL."
The Sabres faced Dubielewicz for two periods March 30 after pummeling Dunham in the opening 20 minutes. Dubielewicz stopped 17 of the Sabres' 18 offerings. He's sure to absorb plenty more than that from the NHL's highest-scoring team starting Thursday. But right now, the Islanders believe anything is possible.
"We were almost down and out a week ago -- same thing [Sunday] -- but we scratched and clawed, and we did it," Dubielewicz said. "I can't believe it. We're in.
"I can't wipe the smile off my face."
Ruff knows the feeling.