But really, DiPietro was never going to play tonight, and neither was Poulin even if he hadn't played in last night's brawl-filled loss to Springfield. (By the way, Michael Fornabaio's blog recap has wonderful echos of 2002.) No matter who warms the bench behind him, tonight is Evgeni Nabokov's start, and he owes his team one after giving up enough to let Ryan Miller steal the last meeting in a game the Islanders frankly deserved to win.
But even that is in the shadow of the chief variable tonight: Ron Rolston's second game behind the bench for the Sabres. Or more broadly, how the Sabres respond in their second game since 1997 without Lindy Ruff.
Mid-season coaching changes are really hard -- a replacement is stuck between leaving his own mark and system on a squad and babying them with few changes while they adjust to the bigger shock they just experienced.
In Rolston's first game, the Sabres were the same team in a 3-1 loss in Toronto. They surely see tonight as a good chance to get Rolston his first win. Rolston surely sees it as another step in his audition to win the job permanently.
Ken Hitchcock says a team that's just had its coach fired is in a "fragile" state, and an immediate internal concern is to get them to trust themselves and feel confident in their abilities -- because the first sign of trouble in games can cause the "here we go again" unraveling.
At Die by the Blade, Rafal Ladysz describes what ailed the Sabres under Ruff:
Publicly berating core members of the squad for last year's conclusion, which was met with a swift response from Derek Roy before his trade to Dallas, was the first hint that the coach's influence began to wane. It carried over to this compressed season and now, Ron Rolston, as the interim head coach, faces the task of getting the players to work for positive results.
An over-reliance on Miller is haunting the Sabres and the goaltender's anger being directed at teammates in recent post-match interviews shows that he too is not pleased. On average, Buffalo forces more saves from their back stopper than 28 other organizations, with Edmonton barely keeping them from the bottom of the pile.
Offensively, the Sabres are being kept afloat by the work of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Christian Ehrhoff.
The powerplay is in shambles, clicking at less than 13 percent and the penalty kill is not doing much better.
Tyler Myers, a former Calder Trophy winner and someone the team is highly dependent upon for results, was twice degraded to being a healthy scratch this month.
With an active owner with a wallet, it's unlikely the Sabres' changes end with the coaching move. From small to large, Rolston will impact the lineup, and with Terry Pegula around there are rumors the Sabers would be willing to buck up for Ryan O'Reilly.
For the Islanders, the psychology has changed today with the longest serving member on waivers, but the lineup challenge has not: They need to outplay the Sabres again, and come away with two points from a fragile team, one of the few teams behind them in the standings.
They came out miserably (again) the other night in Montreal, only to have the powerplay and some even strength awakening help them rally to steal an OT win. They can't afford to come out so flat again.
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