2007-03-30 / Sports

DiPietro Injuries May Crash Islanders Playoff Dream

By Brian Bohl

By Brian Bohl

UNIONDALE, NY- Suddenly, all the good publicity generated by the Ryan Smyth trade-deadline acquisition would be negated. Alexei Yashin's offense emergence was rendered a mere afterthought.

A surprisingly successful Islanders' season was about to come to a disappointing end without a miracle performance by a player who did not appear in a game for an entire month.

At the season's most critical juncture, the Islanders were going to need Mike Dunham to take over for Rick DiPietro, who was reported to be out indefinitely with headaches stemming from an injury two weeks ago. The announcement of that injury would force coach Ted Nolan to go without his starting goalie during the remainder of the regular season.

Good thing for the Islanders that the first reports aren't always the most accurate. After an initial published account said DiPietro was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome Tuesday, the organization released a statement refuting the claim.

He is officially listed as day-to-day after complaining of headaches following Sunday's 2-1 overtime loss to the Rangers, though he could return as early as Friday in Buffalo.

DiPietro initially suffered a head injury when he collided with Montreal's Steve Begin March 13. Begin unintentionally slid into him as both chased the puck near the blue line, forcing the goalie to be removed from that contest. DiPietro missed the following two games with what was termed a stiff neck and upper-body soreness.

He returned later in the road trip and started the last four games, going 2-0-2 to help the Islanders remain two points behind Montreal for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.

With six games left, Nolan said the team needed the 25-year-old netminder to return as quickly as possible, though he insisted medical concerns take precedence over the standings. The Islanders are just 4-9-3 when DiPietro doesn't factor in decisions this season, and the left-handed goalie is tied with Hall of Famer Billy Smith and Chris Osgood for the team record for most single-season victories (32-19-9).

"You always keep your finger crossed, but we'll let the medical staff decide that," coach Ted Nolan said about his starting goalie returning by the week's end. "The most important thing is making sure Rick is healthy."

After complaining of headaches following the Rangers' game, the team sent DiPietro for tests on Tuesday. He missed practice the day before and was held out of a 3-2 loss to the Devils at Nassau Coliseum.

That might be the worst news for DiPietro. His CT scan was negative, and he was not diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome after taking a neuro-pschologicial exam. Officially, he is listed as day-to-day, but the team said he will not be available for comment until he is cleared to play.

"After the game on Sunday, Rick told our medical staff that he was suffering from headaches," Snow said in a statement. "Until Rick is completely recovered, he will not play.

As important as these games are, nothing is more important than Rick's health."

Dunham started against the Devils Tuesday night, stopping 29 of 32 shots before leaving with cramps in his legs in the third period. The former Ranger and Devil goalie has lost his last four games, not recording a victory since making a relief appearance February 1 in Atlanta.

DiPietro started the next 18 games after that before getting hit by Begin, meaning Dunham did not see game action for over a month.

"I felt good, I had some good practices the week and a half," Dunham said after playing New Jersey. "Today I was told I was playing, and that's what you have to be ready for and prepare the best you can. I got a few long shots in early to get me into the flow."

With 84 points, the Islanders are in a three-way tie with Carolina and Toronto for ninth-place. Though they still trail the Canadiens, they do hold one game in hand heading into Wednesday night. Nolan said the team will move on regardless of their goalie's identity, as the franchise looks to secure its first playoff spot since 2003-04.

Still, it is obvious the Isles could use DiPietro's 2.58 goals-against-average back in the crease as soon as possible. His .919 save percentage is seventh-best in the NHL.

As a precaution, the Islanders called up Wade Dubielwicz from minor-league Bridgeport as a backup to Dunham. The AHL all-star was called on midway through the third when Dunham suffered the cramps, stopping all four shots he faced in 12:47. If DiPietro cannot go against the Sabres, Nolan said Dunham will probably start, though he will retain some roster flexibility to change his mind.

"Dubi will stay up and I'm quite sure Dunham will be ok," Nolan said.

After signing a record 15-year contract in the offseason, DiPietro is working on the most successful season of his five-year NHL career. He already set a career-high in victories and recorded a higher save percentage than 2003-04, the last year before the lockout and the more offensive-friendly rules.

During the last four games since returning from the Begin hit, DiPietro allowed just eight goals on 122 shots, going head-to-head with the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist in another low-scoring matchup over the weekend. DiPietro started the previous game Saturday in Philadelphia, meaning he played in two high-pressure games on consecutive afternoons.

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