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LaFontaine won't let Milbury drag him into muck

It was clear Pat LaFontaine wasn't biting, or biting back, when reached last week about comments Mike Milbury made to the Wall Street Journal concerning his departure nearly six years ago from the New York Islanders. Always the diplomat, the former Sabres captain and center elected to take the high road.

LaFontaine has a chilly relationship, or none at all, with the Islanders since resigning as a volunteer adviser to owner Charles Wang. Milbury, who was on the Islanders' board of governors at the time, suggested LaFontaine darted from the problems with the team rather than help find solutions to them.

"Pat ran for the hills. Pat ran for cover," Milbury, an analyst for NBC and CBC, told the newspaper in a story published last week. "It was cowardly, and it was terrible. And if Charles was [ticked], I wouldn't blame him in the least."

For what it's worth, a few days after the fallout in July 2006, I wrote a column criticizing Wang for firing Neil Smith six weeks after hiring him as general manager and replacing him with backup goaltender Garth Snow. In the same piece, I wrote that LaFontaine might have damaged his reputation by stepping down.

Three weeks ago, in an informal conversation before our sons played against one another -- Long Island 12, Hamburg 0 -- in the state 16-under tournament in Northtowns Center, we discussed that column in particular and why he left the Isles in general.

LaFontaine explained that his decision to resign came down to standing up for what he thought was right and believing Smith should have remained on the job. His rationale for refusing to collect a salary from Wang: He wanted the ability to offer an unfiltered opinion without worrying about his job, and he didn't think it was possible unless he worked for free. That way, he had full freedom and nothing to lose.

Ultimately, he didn't believe he could function in an advisory role if his advice on major matters was ignored. It was about principle.

And it made sense.

When reached by telephone last week for a follow-up interview after the Wall Street Journal story was published, LaFontaine had little interest in responding to Milbury's comments and less in getting into a public dispute with the Islanders.

"Listen, I tell my kids to stay focused and stay committed through distractions," LaFontaine said. "To be honest with you, [knowing] this was all coming out, I was interested and focused with winning a national championship for my son and my team and Long Island. I don't have time to deal with those types of comments."

It was vintage LaFontaine.

The Islanders did not make Wang available for an interview last week. A spokesman instead directed their message to Wang's prepared statement in the Wall Street Journal.

"Pat LaFontaine had a great NHL career and does a lot for the Long Island community," Wang said in the statement. "We wish him all the best."

Who has the most credibility -- Milbury, Wang or LaFontaine? You be the judge.

Milbury stepped on his tongue last week and called the Penguins to apologize for comments he made about Sidney Crosby on a Philadelphia radio station. In the Stanley Cup final last June, he infuriated the Canucks by referring to the Sedin twins as "Thelma and Louise." He also was the GM who helped run the Islanders into the ground.

Wang has been an owner since 2000 and became majority owner in 2004. The Isles have missed the playoffs six times in the past seven years, nine in 13 seasons. Former Sabres coach Ted Nolan, the man LaFontaine recommended for the job, guided them to the playoffs in 2006-07. Buffalo delivered a first-round knockout in their only postseason appearance since the lockout.

LaFontaine has been known as a consummate professional and class act throughout his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003 after scoring 458 goals and 1,013 points in his NHL career. He has raised millions of dollars for charity with most of the money going toward causes to help children.

Great guy, great player, but the Isles have all but deleted him from their memory while celebrating their 40th anniversary season. The Journal outlined how the Islanders (see: Wang, Charles) have barely acknowledged his place in team history even though he was one of the best ever to wear their uniform.

Indications point toward the Isles' pettiness bordering on absurd. And they wonder why few players are interested in playing there.

LaFontaine scored one of the biggest goals in franchise history when he beat the Capitals in the fourth overtime in a game that started April 18 and ended April 19, 1987. The goal from the "Easter Epic" isn't included in their highlight video, according to the newspaper. They didn't retire his No. 16 jersey, either, as they have other all-time greats.

In 2008, the Islanders refused to give him a credential so he could meet GM Brian Burke, who was with Anaheim at the time, about working with "Champions in Courage," the charity he founded to build playrooms in children's hospitals. Burke ended up getting a ticket for the game. LaFontaine, who lives on Long Island, hasn't returned.

LaFontaine and the midget team he coached should have been invited to a game last week after winning the national title in Buffalo. The Royals were the first team from Long Island to win a national title since 1982-83, when the Isles won the Stanley Cup. Honoring the kids and their coach would have been a nice gesture, don't you think?

"Thanks," LaFontaine said, "but I'll take the high road."

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Wings a model franchise

The Red Wings reached the 100-point mark for the 12th straight season, which is remarkable considering they were among the big spenders before the lockout and made a seamless adjustment to the salary cap.

Detroit had made the playoffs every year, won three Stanley Cups and lost in the finals once since GM Ken Holland was hired July 18, 1997. His first three drafts produced Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Fischer, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Kronwall and Tomas Kopecky.

"It's just a model of the consistency of this organization," goalie Jimmy Howard said. "Year in and year out you're expected to do this. It's a great challenge at the beginning of the year to look forward to accomplishing."

Detroit and San Jose are the only teams in the NHL to have made the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons since the work stoppage. The Sharks had 100 points for five straight seasons before falling short this year.

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Devilry in the room

The Devils had some fun at rookie Adam Henrique's expense last week when they announced he had won their Unsung Hero Award at their team luncheon. The center walked to the podium and thanked his teammates.

One problem: Goalie Johan Hedberg and defenseman Bryce Salvador were co-winners of the award, not Henrique.

"They announced the wrong guy," Henrique told reporters in New Jersey. "It was Moose and Sal. Moose collected. I made a good speech, though. I thanked the guys for their votes and nobody voted for me."

Hedberg and Devils captain Zach Parise were believed to be behind the practical joke but nobody confessed.

"I don't know what happened," Parise said. "He needs a little humbling experience."

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Coyotes lean on Smith

Phoenix is hoping goalie Mike Smith, at the top of his game in the final week of the season, can push them beyond the first round of the playoffs. The Coyotes were one and done the past two seasons with Ilya Bryzgalov, now with the Flyers.

Smith had three straight shutouts, including a 54-save effort against the Blue Jackets. He had not allowed a goal in 219 minutes, 59 seconds, the second-longest streak in team history behind Brian Boucher. Boucher had the longest shutout streak -- 332 minutes, 1 second -- in the past 45 years.

"He's been consistent all year and consistently good, and that's what you want going into the playoffs," Yotes goaltending coach Sean Burke said. "Not somebody that you gotta rely on to get hot or wonder if he's gonna be hot. You want somebody that has played well all year and you expect is gonna play well, and I think that's what we have."

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Quotable

Lightning star Steven Stamkos on his quest for 60 goals: "You trade this stuff in a heartbeat for winning a championship."

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Around the boards

*The difference between the playoff-bound Devils and playoff-missing Hurricanes can be found in their overtime-shootout records. New Jersey led the league going into the final weekend with a 16-6 mark while Carolina was last at 4-16. Flip their records, and the Devils would have had 90 points with a game left while the 'Canes would have had 94.

*Brian Campbell tied the Panthers' record for most assists by a defenseman (49) when he set up Ed Jovanovski against Washington. Campbell, who had a career-high 53 points, has reached the postseason for five straight seasons since the Sabres traded him in 2007. He helped Florida to the playoffs this year for the first time since 1999-00.

*Don't be surprised if the Canucks shop goalie Roberto Luongo before free agency begins July 1. Luongo has a reasonable $5.2 million cap hit but 10 years left on his contract. The Canucks are worried about another team making a strong offer for Cory Schneider, who would play for less money with little, if any, dropoff in effectiveness.

*Predators defenseman Francois Bouillon last week scored his first goal at home in three years in Nashville. Bouillon, who never had more than five goals in his first 11 seasons, didn't score his first one this year until March 12. He added three more in a six-game stretch going into the weekend.

*Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson on his choice for the Norris Trophy: "If I couldn't vote for myself, I would probably vote for Shea Weber."

email: bgleason@buffnews.com