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Islanders Gameday: Giving Big D the DP treatment

We're seven hours from gametime and the Islanders, in a rare but merited gameday step, have confirmed that Rick DiPietro indeed gets the start tonight in Dallas, his first since Jan. 2, 2009. {wipes brow} How nervous are you?

Isle-east_medium              Dal-shoulder_medium
New York Islanders (18-18-8, 11th/East) at Dallas Stars (18-14-11, 10th/West)
8:30 p.m. EST | [something about air transport] Center | MSG+, radio
If you have to live in Texas, at least there's hockey: Defending Big D

'Cause we all know the thousands of possible directions this journey can go after tonight -- and we also know one night does not make the journey. But with DiPietro, the 2000 #1 overall pick and the man with the 15-year contract, half the journey for fans unfortunately isn't even about on-ice performance, but rather what is said, expected, ranted and ripped by NHL fans and media. In other words: Rational discussions about this player are rare, because there's a lot of baggage from the past -- most of it not his fault.

So now Dallas draws the straw for his first NHL start this year and whatever hype that entails. It's been a while. About 44% of you were right or got your wish. Frequent commenter here "metalcoconut" will be there, in Dallas, trying to introduce some soccer fans to hockey while no doubt holding his breath as The Franchise makes his season debut.

I'm trying to remain calm, but I'm short of breath. DiPietro's last two rehab games in AHL Bridgeport were reportedly steady but also a little rusty. Three to five goals against tonight would not be a shock. With his rehab treatment complete (in truth, body maintenance never ends, never gets easier: Curse you, aging), the Isles have to see what they have. They have to get him started. They have to test him in so they can navigate the three-headed goalie situation his injury created. This is going to be fun.

Ailing Stars

By many measures, OT and shootout records are pretty much luck. The Islanders have been to 16 bonus-point sessions, winning and losing half. The Stars have been to 15, losing 11. They also play in the stronger West, so you'd think the three standings points separating these teams is a deceptively close gap.

However, the Stars just lost second-line scorer Mike Ribeiro (10-23-33 in 43 games) for at least a month after an inadvertent stick to the throat. (If you're like me, your first reaction to that news was simply the irony of a player known for apparently faking injury in a playoff game -- then smirking about it -- now going down with a serious injury. I don't like to see injuries, and it's not exactly a "boy who cried wolf" thing. But it goes to show that reputations are hard to shake.)

Also ailing the Stars is the unending saga of sometimes-great, sometimes-headscratching Marty Turco, who played a generous part in allowing Sean Avery to enjoy a vengeful night at the Garden two days ago. But Brandon at SBN's Defending Big D thinks it's even worse than all that: He says this flawed team "has lost its heart and its will to fight."

In a surprising and perhaps misleading 2008 playoff run, the Stars lost in the semis to eventual Cup champion Detroit. Last year, they missed out entirely and fired their GM(s) and coach. It's funny: From the outside, I never expected much of this year's Stars to begin with; they look like a team still in transition (Joe Nieuwendyk is still putting his stamp on the team) and I'm not sold on Marc Crawford as an NHL coach for this era.

But as fans, we often look at playoff advances as if they're stepping stones -- "We made it to the 2nd round, next year we have to go farther," etc. But that papers over the reality of luck, the draw of the playoff bracket, and the short sample size that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. I love the Stanley Cup playoffs more than anything else in sports, but if you ask me who was a better team in a given year -- the Cup winner or the Presidents' Trophy winner? -- I'll pick the team that got it done over six months against 29 opponents over the one that did it for two months against four.

Winning the Cup marathon is no joke. It's also part of a mythology that we are all too happy feed. I am the worst offender.


The Stats and the What-Not

The Stars powerplay is better (19.5% vs. 15.5%), though it's gone 0-11 in the last three games, including 0-9 in New Jersey and at the Garden. Their PK is a little better, 78% vs. 76.7%. They get more shots on goal (32.1 to 29.7) and they give up fewer (30.3 vs. 32.4). By rights, they're a better team expected to beat the Isles. But so was Colorado.


Lineup Shenanigans

The big news is DiPietro's start, but the creeping story from DiPietro's return and Doug Weight's health is that a roster move this way comes. Tim Jackman still has a few weeks, but Sean Bergenheim is the closest to returning. By carrying three goalies, one extra defenseman and Jeff Tambellini, that means we'll need another injury or a waiver move when Bergie's ready (as soon as tonight?), and we'll need yet one more when Jackman comes back.

You go into the season with extra bodies because injuries have a way of making the roster work out. So far this year, that's been the case. But you also go into the season knowing at some point health will conspire to force you into an uncomfortable waiver decision. The Islanders may very well be nearing that point. If the Isles are sold on Andrew MacDonald -- and Scott Gordon told Katie Strang he didn't want to demote him -- the easy yet defensively risky move is waiving Freddy Meyer, who has been sitting while Andy Mac has played. But if the Islanders see Jeff Tambellini as a fourth-line/pressbox player, then I'm not sure what they're waiting for. (I don't advocate dumping Tambellini, but I don't advocate keeping him in cold storage, either.)

Just by bringing it up, I'm sure some freak injury will happen and make this all moot. But keep an eye on how that's resolved.


A Long Road for Ricky

If you can't tell, I'm really pumped for tonight -- for the sheer uncertainty and intrigue of it all. Will DiPietro be able to contain his excitement? Will the Isles block more shots to help him ease in? If they get the lead, will they be guilty of collapsing in the third rather than continuing the forecheck? Will an uneven DP performance feed all kinds of apocalyptic talk in the morning?


NHL Mid-Season Award Front-Runners

SBN's hockey hub is increasingly producing original content, as well as linking to the latest stuff around the Web. The latest bit is a poll of writers from SBN's team blogs for mid-season awards. Check it out, weigh in, argue to your heart's content. There was no consensus on the Selke, but you better believe the reason Frans Nielsen is mentioned is because of my lonely vote.

My other votes:

Vezina - Ryan Miller; Norris - Duncan Keith; Hart - Dwayne Roloson (yeah, it's homer, but that's a nebulous award anyway); Calder - John Tavares (homer again, but no rookie has been asked to do more); Adams - Dave Tippett, who was is still as good a coach in Phoenix as he was in Dallas.