2006-10-20 / Sports

Under the Radar Dunham Might Usurp "Lifetime" Dipietro

By Brian Bohl

UNIONDALE, NY - Forgive Mike Dunham if the smell of rubber engulfs his 6-2, 190-pound frame. Before the season started, he wasn't even supposed to be in a situation to make much more than a marginal impact on the Islanders, let alone be called on to make 77 saves in a two-game span. After all, it's hard to move up when the man in front of you has a contract that set a record for longevity.

Rick DiPietro was expected to stand between the pipes for well into the next decade after signing a 15-year, $67.5 million deal in September. While the former first overall draft pick will eventually be the entity the Islanders will pin their marginal playoff hopes to, it is Dunham that's kept them afloat in the young season.

DiPietro injured his groin during the four-game road trip against some of the best teams in the Western Conference. After starting 0-3, coach Ted Nolan turned to Dunham to give his struggling net-minder a rest. The nine-year veteran proved up the challenge, defeating first-place Anaheim in a shootout by making 46 saves. He came up big against three days later during a 4-1 victory over Boston in the home opener Saturday before making an additional 32 shots during a shootout loss to Nashville Monday night that netted one point in the standings.

Having such a high frequency of pucks drilled at them might not sit well with some backup goalies. After all, Dunham is still getting acclimated to his new team after signing just days before training camp. But standing in the dressing after the Bruins win, the 34-year-old former Ranger, Devil, Predator and Thrasher displayed the laid-back style and self-deprecating humor that prompted Nolan to label him a "calming influence" on the rest of the team.

"Probably because I don't say anything," Dunham said when asked why his coach feels he brings a soothing presence to the club. "I'm just doing what I need to do. I try to keep things simple out there. That's the name of the game."

After appearing in four games through Tuesday, Dunham (2-0-1) had the best save percentage in the entire NHL, with his .953 average .05 better than Dallas' Marty Turco. With DiPietro listed as day-to-day, Nolan will continue to go with the hot hand without having to worry about creating a goalie controversy only two weeks into the season.

"The one thing about veteran players is they've been through quite a bit," Nolan said about Dunham's experience. "He didn't have the best training camp, but some guys have great training camps and get off to bad starts. He's certainly had a good start to the season."

Dunham is accustomed to being a good player on a bad team. The Johnson City, New York native has a career 139-169 record, but has a sturdy 2.69 goals against average. He teamed with Martin Brodeur in 1997 to win the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the team with the fewest goals scored against.

Keeping that GAA number low has not been an easy task for the 1990 third round draft pick. The Islanders (2-3-1) had been shorthanded 39 times through the first five games, with only Florida taking more penalties in the league. That has contributed to 193 shots against, a number that also trains only the Panthers for the worst mark. Despite the ugly statistics line, everyone from the coaching staff to the players said the defensive unit with new acquisitions like Brendan Witt and Sean Hill will get better with more game experience.

"There are still some mishaps, but that's just getting comfortable with each other," Dunham said after winning the home opener. "Tonight the puck was bouncing off the glass and boards a little funny and we were all scrambling a little bit."

A strange carom facilitated Boston's only goal, as Glen Murray saw a clearing attempt go right on his stick before blasting a slap shot for a 1-0 lead. The Islanders would then go on to score four unanswered goals.

Jason Blake contributed to three of those tallies, scoring two goals while assisting on Tom Poti's insurance marker early in the third. Afterwards, the speedy winger said Dunham allowed the team to come back after a difficult first period, during which Boston had five power play opportunities and registered 17 shots.

"He's been in this league a long time and knows what it takes to win," Blake said. "He's been in the trenches. He's a great leader off the ice and on the ice. He works very hard in practice. Both our goaltenders are like that. The last two games, he definitely has been the key to us winning."

While having two starting-caliber goalies could cause some tension in the locker room, Dunham said his relationship with DiPietro was one the reasons why he decided to sign with the Islanders after spending last season with Atlanta. He also had a good working relationship with general manager Garth Snow, who was the backup goalie last season before taking the front-office job in the summer. Both were teammates at the University of Maine, winning the NCAA championship together in the 1992-1993 season.

"Obviously, I knew Shawn Bates and I knew Garth, and they needed another guy," Dunham said about picking Nassau County as his next home. "I wanted to be in the Northeast. There were a couple of chances with a couple of teams, but I wanted to be close to home and close to where I grew up. It's back to familiar territory. I played with New Jersey and New York, so I figured I might as well hit the Island."

Dunham, who was part of the original Nashville team in 1998, said having a good working relationship with the other goaltenders is important for team chemistry. Over an 82-game schedule, even an unquestioned front-line starter needs a breather for about 15-20 games, especially during the numerous back-to-back contests that can quickly sap energy.

"I think it's important because you need two goalies, sometimes you need three," he said. "I think it's very important that the two goalies get along where you can bounce things back and forth. The goaltending position is a little different than everyone else in the locker room. You're there by yourself, so it's nice to have someone you can talk to and get along with and hang out.

"I think it makes everyone else feel comfortable too. If two guys don't get along because they're budding heads vying for that one crease, sometimes that's counterproductive. Here, I get along with Ricky well, and it makes it a lot easier."

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