Somewhere between Rangers' first period scoring chances, you could almost hear Islanders' goalie Rick DiPietro muttering to himself, wondering why he wasn't between the pipes in what was possibly the biggest game of the season thus far.
Every time the MSG camera crew caught a glimpse of the goalie, he was glaring angrily onto the ice surface with a look of disgust. Not once, however, did he look at head coach Ted Nolan.
After missing the previous game against the Florida Panthers to be with his family after the death of his grandmother, DiPietro rejoined the team earlier this week and practiced as if he was going to be starting Tuesday's game. However, general manager Garth Snow convinced him otherwise.
Instead, backup netminder Wade Dubielewicz stepped in and stopped 27 shots and five of six Rangers' skaters in the shootout to allow the Islanders to escape Tuesday's game with a 4-3 win.
Clearly still feeling the effects of a win they didn't deserve, Nolan was sweet on pressing his luck with Dubielewicz again in the second of consecutive games against the Rangers at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Though he wouldn't commit to either goaltender, calling it a "game-time decision," there was a growing consensus that DiPietro would be stuck looking on from the bench again.
"The game against Florida, he stood tall for us, and he doesn't seem to be rattled in there in pressure situations," Nolan said Thursday morning. "He goes right into Madison Square Garden, and especially with all the shooters against him in the shootout, it didn't seem to faze him. He just wants to play, and he played great."
DiPietro practiced Wednesday and Thursday with the team, hoping he would get the nod for the next game.
"Regardless of what's going on, I like to play as much as possible," DiPietro said. "[Snow] kind of rationalized and thought it wasn't a good idea, but obviously I wanted to compete especially in a game of that magnitude."
His perception changed dramatically when he got to the arena for the team's morning skate.
"I was told I wasn't playing," DiPietro said. "At the end of the day, that's a coach's decision. Dubie has played well. It was unfortunate I was away a couple of days and missed time."
Nolan was still taking non- committal stance on who his goaltender would be for the game. Perhaps he should have chosen his words more wisely.
"Ricky has to concentrate on being a goaltender and we'll concentrate on coaching the team," he said. "We're in the business of winning games, so you've got to go with the hot goaltender - if that's the case - or you come back with our No. 1 guy. Either way it's a tough decision."
Keeping both goaltenders relatively in the dark wasn't the best decision, either. Neither Dubielewicz or DiPietro sounded confident they'd get the start, thus interfering with their preparation for the game.
"He's going to make a game-time decision, so I'm preparing like I'm going to play, whether that's the case or not," Dubielewicz said. "I'm human. I want to play. I'm looking forward to hopefully getting the start, and if I do get the call to be ready. If I don't, then definitely disappointed.
"I definitely wish I knew if I was going or not. That would make the afternoon a little easier, but it's not going to be a big deal. I'm just going to prepare like I'm playing. It's that simple."
That simple, until Brendan Shanahan is barreling down on a breakaway less than 90 seconds into the contest, right Wade?
Nolan has never been too keen on how to address the media about his own players. Earlier this season he ripped Andy Hilbert for missing an open net in the Rangers only other victory against the Isles this season.
A miffed DiPietro could only look on as the Rangers toasted his backup goaltender in the opening period. The Rangers scored twice, taking a 2-0 advantage into the locker room. Dubielewicz was lucky the lead was only two as he was beaten two more times but was bailed out by goal posts.
Overall, Dubielewicz finished with 24 saves, and a loss as the Islanders fell 4-1. That loss coupled with a Flyers' victory pushed them five points away from the coveted final playoff spot.
There's no telling what kind of lasting effect Nolan's decision will have on the team's playoff push. But for the first time since his arrival prior to the 2006-07 season, the Islanders seem to be playing in spite of his decisions, as opposed to benefiting from them.
With the end of the regular season exactly one month away, Nolan's decision to sit DiPietro could be the beginning of the end for the Isles' playoff hopes.
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