Confident Isles regain respect

TERRY KOSHAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:11 PM ET

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Rick DiPietro has been in the New York Islanders net for just two losses in regulation in the past month but he is not about to put the club's recent surge on his own shoulders.

"We dug ourselves a bit of a hole in the first half of the season, and in the second half we have been more confident and desperate, and it has paid off," DiPietro, an Islander for another mind-boggling 14 seasons if he is not traded, said after practice yesterday. "We had a tendency to make some big mistakes, glaring mistakes, that cost us, and now we are more consistent in eliminating them."

Few thought the Islanders would be in the thick of the playoff hunt deep into the season, if at all. The theme song from The Gong Show doesn't ring true as readily in the halls of the antiquated Nassau Coliseum as it once did, and team owner Charles Wang is not curled up in a corner, giggling at a joke only he understands.

With Ted Nolan making, at least to this point, a successful return to coaching in the NHL after nine seasons in exile, the Islanders have chipped away at regaining the respect they lost after becoming a storied franchise in the early 1980s.

"I don't know what the outside hockey world expected us to do, but as far as the playoff race, I totally expected to be here," said 35-year-old forward Mike Sillinger, who has skated for 11 other NHL teams. "What makes a good coach is a winning hockey team. It's getting the most out of your players, and (Nolan) has been able to do that. He is a very patient guy and he is a guy who gives second chances and believes in the players he has."

Behind a 39-save performance by DiPietro last week in Toronto, the Islanders knocked off the Maple Leafs 3-2 in a shootout. Both clubs have 22 games remaining and 66 points, one back of the Carolina Hurricanes, who are eighth in the Eastern Conference.

Nolan won't remind his players the crucial implication of each game's outcome. But he would not mind if the Islanders do a better job containing the large Leafs trio of Mats Sundin, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov deep in the New York zone.

"We have to dominate in the corners, get on them quicker and use our speed to counter them," Nolan said. "We mentioned to the players (yesterday) it will be the last time we talk about how important every game is because we will feel like a broken record. Every game is important. We knew it was going to be tight, but we did not know it was going to be this tight."


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