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Isles may be long on grit but short in goal

Ted Nolan might be a good coach, but he'll never be confused with the NHL's top tacticians. The New York Islanders coach was never an X's and O's guy, which is why assistant Danny Flynn will be the one scribbling on the dry-erase board during critical moments in the series against the Buffalo Sabres.

Nolan's strength is motivating players, getting them to play beyond their potential. The Islanders know they can't match the Sabres' speed, skill, depth, goaltending or playoff experience. And that's where Nolan comes into play. Bet the house, the garage and the kids that the Islanders will equal Buffalo's effort and intensity.

How do you think the Isles made the playoffs in the first place?

Montreal and Toronto were better. They had more experience and more talent but eventually crumbled when it mattered most. The Islanders grew stronger, winning their final four games, including a dramatic 3-2 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils to secure the final spot. It was hardly a surprise.

Before the season, people had their doubts. Nolan was returning from a 10-year exile under newbie General Manager Garth Snow, a former backup goalie, and a league much different from the one he left. The Isles had average talent and a few veteran stars such as Alexei Yashin, Jason Blake and Miroslav Satan across their four lines.

New York lost nine of 11 games midway through the season and fell to 21-21-4. But, true of Nolan-coached teams, they never folded. Their response was an 11-2-4 tear that pulled them back into contention. It appeared they were sunk when franchise goalie Rick DiPietro suffered a concussion almost a month ago, but instead they came together.

Nolan called upon little-known Wade Dubielewicz out of necessity and watched him allow eight goals over the final four games. Richard Park had not scored twice in a game since the lockout and had just eight goals this season before netting a pair in the win over New Jersey. You think they're confident now?

And that's what Nolan does. He gets players to believe they're better than they are until they become dangerous.

>What's up

The Islanders have been playing playoff-style hockey for the past month and ended the season on a winning streak. Dubielewicz has been superb in goal, which makes the Isles wonder if they have the next Cam Ward. Jason Blake was their best player during the regular season and had 40 goals. Ryan Smyth has adjusted to new teammates after being traded from Edmonton, which fell apart after he left. Defenseman Sean Hill, who won a Cup last season in Carolina, leads a gritty defense.

>What's down

New York has serious depth problems, especially with Shawn Bates, Freddy Meyer and Radek Martinek out indefinitely with injuries. The Isles don't have enough speed to keep up with the Sabres' four lines. Chris Simon's suspension leaves them without a physical presence and allows Buffalo to insert even more skill while sitting Andrew Peters. Simon's plus-17 led all active Islanders.

Captain Alexei Yashin is minus-16 in 43 career playoff games. New York hasn't played beyond the first round since 1992-93 season.

>The Islanders will win if . . .

Their goalie steals the series. DiPietro's status is uncertain, and Dubielewicz remains unproven. That may be way too much to ask against a team like Buffalo in the playoffs.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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