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DiPietro in town, likely in net Goalie hasn't played since March 25

One game into their best-of-seven playoff series against the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Islanders already are looking for a white knight to ride in and save them.

The Islanders, yearning to head back to Long Island with a road split, should have franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro in the crease for Game Two of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals tonight in HSBC Arena.

DiPietro has been sidelined since March 25, when he suffered his second concussion in 12 days. He was cleared to practice with the Islanders on Friday afternoon in the Amherst Pepsi Center, but neither he nor coach Ted Nolan would reveal their plans for tonight.

Common sense dictates DiPietro will be on the ice.

"Desperate times, desperate measures," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, "and if he's ready to play I would assume that he would play. He's been their backbone, and if you can add him to your lineup, you're adding a valuable player.

"It fills the hope tank up again."

DiPietro's replacement, Wade Dubielewicz, played well Thursday night in a 31-save, losing effort. But DiPietro is a former No. 1 draft selection and an Olympian who the Islanders gave an outlandish 15-year, $67.5 million contract in September.

DiPietro this season was 32-19 with nine overtime or shootout losses. He had a 2.58 goals-against average and ranked sixth with a .919 save percentage. He posted five shutouts.

"If you're a competitor, you want to play," DiPietro said. "I realize how important these games are. I'm going to do everything I can to make myself ready.

"It's tough to put into words how excited I am to be back and be a part of this. No one thought we could do it and make the playoffs. . . . This is the best time of the season. This is what you play 82 games for and this is what you fight for. So it's good to be back."

Perhaps the Islanders should start DiPietro for no other reason than Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek was lobbying for Dubielewicz to keep the job.

"I think [Dubielewicz] is playing very good," Spacek said. "He made lots of big saves, especially in the first period. He was standing on his head. I don't see any bad moves he made. Honestly, I wouldn't change him. I think he played great. He played a strong game."

But the re-insertion of DiPietro would allow the Islanders to play with more urgency.

Their confidence should rise knowing he's behind them. Their offense can take more chances than they would if they had to be mindful of protecting Dubielewicz that much more. In addition, DiPietro is known as one of the game's best puckhandling goalies.

"I think if you know your goaltender is going to bail you out once in a while," said Islanders winger Jason Blake, "the defensemen might have more tendency to pinch in and take the odd chance here and there.

"As a team, we're more confident when he's in the net. I'm sure the Devils are when [Martin] Brodeur is in the net. I'm not saying anything bad about [Islanders third goalie] Mike Dunham or Wade Dubielewicz, but when he's in net there's a sense of confidence that runs through the room. I think his presence gives us a boost."

DiPietro's return is one reason the Sabres expect to see a different opponent than they faced in Game One, when the Islanders managed only one first-period shot and emphasized defense to keep the game as close as possible for as long as possible.

Almost to a man, the Sabres predicted more offensive-minded foes.

"You're going to see more desperation," Ruff said. "You're going to see a team that may loosen up just a little bit to try to create more offense. They're in a situation where they want to come in here and win one game. I expect a lot more from them."

The old hockey playoff chestnut says an underdog needs to take away the higher seed's home-ice advantage by winning one of the first two road games.

Islanders winger Ryan Smyth knows all about the concept. He was a driving force last spring in helping the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers win the Western Conference title.

"You've got to win one here anyways," Smyth said. "Might as well get it early and build some confidence early and go home and play with conviction back at home and help with the fans on our side."

Said Sabres co-captain Chris Drury: "They certainly don't want to go down, two-nothing. They're going to come hard."

The Sabres controlled Game One with special teams. They essentially scored three power-play goals (one came right after an Islander left the penalty box) on five tries (a meaningless sixth chance came with 22 seconds to go).

The Islanders, meanwhile, were blanked on only three power plays.

"We have to, obviously, improve in all aspects," Nolan said. "We have to stay out of the penalty box a little bit better. We have to penalty kill a little bit better. We have to get our power play going a little bit better.

"But, overall, five-on-five, I thought we played half-decently. The longer we can play five-on-five and wait for opportunities, the better off we're going to be."

Buffalo's Daniel Briere missed practice Friday after being hit in the leg by a shot Thursday, but he should play tonight.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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