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In the Crease: Opportunity Knocking

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
On Saturday, December 18, the New York Islanders surprised the hockey world when they recalled Bridgeport Sound Tigers goaltender Nathan Lawson on an emergency basis. He was called up to cover for Rick DiPietro, who has minor swelling in his knee. The shock continued when Islanders management opted to have the rookie start over veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson that night against the Phoenix Coyotes, leaving both fans and pundits with questions.


Lawson found himself in the midst of the most exciting opportunity of his career. The 27-year-old was going to make his NHL debut.

“I was a little nervous before the game,” Lawson said. “But then Roli (Roloson) talked to me, and Ricky (DiPietro) had talked to me earlier in the day. I also played with a lot of these guys in Bridgeport so I felt comfortable. And with Cappy (Capuano) coaching, it was a familiar face on the bench. I just kind of rolled with it, and tried to play my game.”

The Islanders had a 3-2 lead over the Coyotes until there was 1:28 remaining in regulation, when Phoenix leveled the score. Lawson had 29 saves at the end of regulation and he added three more in the overtime period to send the game to a shootout.

“Lawson played awesome,” Islanders defensemen Travis Hamonic said after the game, which ended in a 4-3 shootout loss. “For the first little bit in Bridgeport, when I was down there with him, he kept us in games; game after game after game. He made some huge saves tonight that turned the game around for us. He played really well, so congratulations to him on his first game.”

Going into a shootout is a lot of pressure for any goaltender, but add in the nerves of your first NHL game, and that would be enough to send some into panic. Although Lawson’s first NHL game didn’t end the way he would have liked, he handled himself like a veteran.

After all, Lawson has three years of professional experience. He played three seasons at the University of Alaska, Anchorage and, after going undrafted, signed with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL at the start of the 2007-08 season. He played in a mere five games before being traded to the Utah Grizzlies.

“When I was coaching in the ECHL – and I look at (Tomas) Vokoun and Alex Auld, and a lot of guys that I see now in the NHL –  they’ve all paid their dues in the ECHL, playing a lot of games and they worked their way up to the American Hockey League,” Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said. “Jason Labarbera (of the Phoenix Coyotes) the other day was the same way, playing for the Reading Royals.”

Working his way up, Lawson began the 2008-09 season in Utah, playing just three games for the Grizzlies before landing a professional tryout with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He was eventually signed to an AHL deal and in 31 games for the Sound Tigers, posted a 2.16 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. Lawson recorded 19 wins, nine losses and two ties that season and was named the American Hockey League Rookie of the Year.

Nathan is a guy that competes at a high level all the time. To play that position, you’ve got to have that self-confidence, and he does have that. He plays the puck extremely well too. This is his opportunity. He’s been in the minors now for a while. He’s worked his way to get to this level. - Jack Capuano
“It was kind of surprising, since I started the year off in the East Coast,” Lawson said. “I didn’t really play at all when I first got called up. And then when (Peter) Mannino got called up (to the Islanders), it gave me the opportunity to play some games. I just got into a groove and it was a great honor to receive that award.”

Lawson had another spectacular season in 2009-10. In 36 games, he recorded a 2.16 goals against average and a .922 save percentage for 16 wins, 16 losses and three ties. After beginning this season on injured reserve, Lawson has posted two wins, four losses and two ties for a 3.78 goals against average and .890 save percentage.

“Nathan is a guy that competes at a high level all the time,” Capuano said. “To play that position, you’ve got to have that self-confidence, and he does have that. He plays the puck extremely well too. This is his opportunity. He’s been in the minors now for a while. He’s worked his way to get to this level.”

For now, Lawson remains a member of the Islanders, but he recognizes and respects the veteran leadership on the roster. “This is Ricky and Roli’s team,” he said. “I am just trying to fill in where I can. Whenever I get the nod, I will just try to do my best.”

Lawson has learned a lot from the veteran leadership of DiPietro. Last season, when DiPietro had his conditioning stint with the Sound Tigers, the two goaltenders developed a strong friendship.

“We have a great friendship and he helps me out a lot,” Lawson said. “I look up to him because he is such a good goaltender. He has that attitude about him that a lot of people might perceive as cocky, but I think it’s just that he is so confident in his abilities, that I try to do the same sort of thing. You have to be confident in what you do, or it’s not going to work.”

With three years of seasoning in the minor leagues, there comes a time when a goaltender is deemed ready for his opportunity to play in the NHL. That opportunity for Lawson began on Saturday.
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