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Upset would spoil Nolan's popularity in Buffalo

So, did anyone hear Ted Nolan is coaching against his former team?

One of the major story lines for the first-round playoff series between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders will take place behind the benches. Nolan will lead his Islanders against the team he coached to the 1996-97 Northeast Division title. It was his final season in Buffalo as contract renegotiations went astray.

"I was very lucky, very fortunate to get a start in this league and to get to know the people of Buffalo," Nolan said. "I'll never forget the reception, the welcoming. There's a lot of places you get to go to in life, work for different organizations, but people are something you'll always remember, the friendships you made. Buffalo is always a special place in my heart, but now I've got to try and beat their hockey team."

The questions about the organizational ties have quickly grown stale in Sabreland.

"A couple of those make me laugh still because some of them are so old already," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Ted's done a good job with that team. He's dealt with some adversity down the stretch. They lost their starting goaltender, and they still found a way to get in there. So he's done a great job.

"Ted's thing, that's 10 years ago now, so that's a long ways back."

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, who conversely to Nolan started on Long Island and moved to Buffalo, said the Nolan issue is long over.

"Ted should be in the National Hockey League, is in the National Hockey League, has done an outstanding job with that team and will continue to do an outstanding job in the playoffs," Regier said. "For me, it's 10 years ago, and the Islanders are the opposition, and we have to find a way to beat that team."

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It'll be "Dubie" rather than "DP" in the Isles' crease.

Rumors had begun circulating that New York goaltender Rick DiPietro, out since March 25 with a concussion, might return for Game One on Thursday in HSBC Arena. Nolan doused those reports Tuesday.

"He's not even in our thought pattern right now," the coach said.

DiPietro skated on his own Tuesday, but he will not be cleared to join the team until he passes neurological exams. That leaves the goaltending chores to Wade Dubielewicz, who won the final four games of the season to get the Islanders into the playoffs.

"The approach changes a bit because [DiPietro is] the guy that handles the puck a lot," Ruff said. "If you're not good getting it into the zone, he's the type of guy that's out there playing and shooting it out. You have to make adjustments."

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The Sabres' first practice of the postseason in the Amherst Pepsi Center was crisp and lively, with some work done on the power play.

"I thought the tempo of the practice was awesome," Ruff said. "I thought we really skated well. There's a lot of excitement out there."

The excitement, co-captain Daniel Briere said, is because they have been waiting for the playoffs since training camp. He believes last year's run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals has taught this year's team a lot.

"I think we're better prepared than we were last year," Briere said. "Last year, I mean, we had to fight hard pretty much all year, and our goal was just to get in the playoffs. Everything happened so quick. Where this year, right from Day One, we knew we had something special. We were trying to get ready for this."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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