After practice on Friday, someone asked Ted Nolan if his New York Islanders were in a desperate situation heading into Game Two of their opening round series against the Sabres. Nolan answered without the slightest hesitation.
"There are a lot more desperate things in life," Nolan said with a smile. Then he said it was a joy and a privilege simply to be involved in pro hockey at this level. And he reminded us that it takes four wins, not one, to win a playoff series.
Maybe the Isles weren't desperate Saturday night, but they were certainly ready. Nolan's team, inspired by the return of goaltender Rick DiPietro, thoroughly outplayed the Sabres in the early going and escaped with a 3-2 victory at HSBC Arena to even the series at a game apiece.
If anyone is desperate now, it might be the heavily favored Sabres, who started the game as if they expected the Isles to roll over. Now they realize the series isn't going to be the cakewalk most experts expected. And they must contemplate the fact that New York is suddenly winning the all-important goalie battle.
Nolan took some heat for going back to DiPietro, who had missed three weeks with a second concussion and had just a day of practice under his belt. Conventional wisdom suggested DiPietro wouldn't be ready for the Sabres' withering offensive attack. But he justified Nolan's faith in a big way, turning aside 32 of 34 shots.
"I'd like to stand here and tell you this is exactly how I pictured it," said DiPietro. "I just did everything I could to get myself ready. I approached it like any other game day and went over the same kind of rituals to get ready. I gave everything I had in the tank, and fortunately, things turned out well."
As anticipated, the Islanders played with more verve and aggression in front of their star goalie. DiPietro made some terrific stops -- none bigger than a save on Thomas Vanek after Vanek undressed defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron late in the second period.
But the Isles did a good job of protecting DiPietro and giving him a good look at Buffalo's perimeter shots in the early going. That allowed him to get his rhythm and to settle into his first game in three weeks -- and his first playoff performance in three years.
"I could have used a little WD-40 on the joints," DiPietro said. "That's the biggest thing when you're off for an extended period of time. You're not able to do any physical activity. You sit on the couch and watch TV, but your muscles get tight. But as the game progressed, I felt better and better."
The Islanders were a lot better as a team, too. They don't have the skill or depth of the Sabres. But they're a resilient squad that had rewarded Nolan's patience and confidence in them all year long.
There's a tendency to minimize the Nolan mystique in Buffalo. It's been 10 years since his ugly departure as coach. But Nolan brought an undeniable magic to this town in the early days of HSBC Arena. Buffalo fans certainly believed he had a special touch, and that had a way of making a team perform above its ability.
So it's understandable that Sabres fans would want to look past the Nolan myth. The Islanders were their worst nightmare -- an inferior team that might play over its head, gain early momentum, and create the sort of pressure that inevitably settles in when a favorite struggles in the Cup playoffs.
The key, as always, is goaltending. When an underdog gets consistent great goaltending in a Cup series, wildly unimagined outcomes are known to occur.
"I've coached a few athletes in my day," Nolan said, "but you don't find too many like Ricky. His whole demeanor -- his love for the game, the way he approaches life, his enthusiasm. When he comes back in, he has a sense of confidence that goes to the rest of the team.
"The one thing you never question with Ricky is his readiness to play. He might not have been ready to practice, but I'm quite sure he practiced in his brain for the last three weeks when he wasn't on the ice."
Another game like this one, and DiPietro might get in the Sabres' heads, too.