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Savior in net can't save Islanders

To absolutely no one's surprise, coach Ted Nolan declined to say who would be his starting goalie tonight after the New York Islanders practiced Friday.

Nolan said Rick DiPietro looked sharp in his first action in three weeks. He said DiPietro could give New York an enormous lift by playing. But Nolan wouldn't say for certain whether DiPietro would be in net against the Sabres tonight in Game Two.

"We'll see how he feels after a good night's rest," Nolan said.

Well, let's put an end to the posturing right now. DiPietro is playing. You can take it to the bank. The Isles didn't fly their top goalie here on owner Charles Wang's private jet so he could sit around in a suit and watch poor Wade Dubielewicz get lit up by the Sabres.

More to the point, the Islanders didn't give DiPietro a 15-year, $67.5 million contract to sit out the team's biggest game in three years. They gave him that ridiculous deal because they felt he could be a superstar, a goalie who could carry a team -- in this case, an average team -- on his back in a Stanley Cup playoff series.

As Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said, desperate times require desperate measures. Nolan wouldn't admit it, but the Isles need to win tonight to restore the confidence they gained by winning four straight games to sneak into the playoffs. The problem is, they're overmatched. The only way they can win the series is if DiPietro stands on his head. That might be a poor choice of words, considering that the guy is coming back from two concussions, but you get the point.

The Islanders played soft and defensive in Game One, and it got them nowhere. They need to come out of their shell and engage the Sabres in a game of speed and finesse. That's a dangerous strategy against the Sabres. But the Isles feel emboldened to open things up when DiPietro is back there covering for them.

"You can't change your game just because it's playoff hockey," said Jason Blake. "The Sabres are the best four-line team in the league by far. What are you going to do, watch them skate around with the puck all day? We have to play the way we did when we won hockey games. We have to be more aggressive."

Blake said the Isles are more confident with DiPietro in net. He even compared DiPietro with Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and other elite goalies.

Whoa there, Jason. DiPietro is a good goalie, and some day he might be one of the NHL elite. But the way the Islanders were talking Friday, you'd have thought a goaltending savior had jetted into our midst, some legend with four or five Stanley Cups in his trophy case.

DiPietro had a breakout season. He went 32-19-9 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. But he hasn't proved himself on the big stage. He was dreadful for the USA in the Olympics. He has one NHL playoff victory. He's played six games against Buffalo the last two seasons and won one.

Actually, I'm not sure the Sabres care who plays goal tonight. They're a hungry, motivated team that responds well to any fresh challenge. Seeing a franchise goalie at the other end of the ice -- one who beat out their own Ryan Miller for the Olympic team -- could bring out the best in them. They didn't play very well in Game One and still won by three goals. Heaven knows what they might do if the Isles open up the attack.

DiPietro hasn't played in three weeks. He hasn't faced anything like the Sabres in full playoff mode. He could wind up like that other U.S. Olympian, Robert Esche, who got blown out in the Sabres' 8-2 win over the Flyers in Game Two of last year's opening series.

DiPietro will be ready, given a good night's rest. The bigger question is how he'll feel when he wakes up tomorrow.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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