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Maven's Memories: Fresh Faces Prove a Tonic in 2003-04

With a new coach and renewed energy, the Islanders make playoffs for a third-straight season

by Stan Fischler @StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

"Contrasts."

That one word best describes two consecutive -- and vastly different --Islanders playoff seasons, 2001-02 and 2002-03.

The former campaign culminated with a tempestuous seven-game series against the unfriendly Maple Leafs that ended in defeat, but with considerable honor.

The latter season -- in which Ottawa negated the Nassaumen four games to one -- stuck in just about everyone's craw, especially Mike Milbury's 

Mike translated his thoughts into action on June 3, 2003 when he fired Head Coach Peter Laviolette and found a replacement, another rookie in the NHL's coaching ranks. And not a young one either.

Steve Sterling, at 53, was promoted from the American Hockey League's Bridgeport Sound Tigers and seemed to immediately bond with his employer.

Sterling: "Mike is the boss. I expect suggestions every day. Some I'll sift out and some I'll move on. We're in it together and that's the most important thing."

No less important was the status of oft-injured but indomitable captain Michael Peca. The subject of summer-long trade rumors, Peca showed up at September training camp lean and mean.

A surprise was the arrival of ex-Islander, Mariusz Czerkawski, the Polish winger who had suffered through a dismal year with Montreal. Mariusz believed that he could re-find his scoring touch with the Nassaumen.

Meanwhile, Garth Snow re-signed, giving Sterling a Snow-Rick DiPietro goaltending combo.

Fighting Steve Webb was not invited back and that was a bit of a surprise. But Webb was replaced by Arron Asham who could fight as well and score more goals than Steve.

Other returnees inspired promise especially a line comprised of Peca, Mark Parrish and Shawn Bates.

"If they played the way they did two seasons ago," said Milbury, "We'll have a fine first line."  

Newcomers Trent Hunter and Sean Bergenheim also were expected to fill nets. Or, at least, Mike hoped they would.

Milbury: "I'm looking for commitment and effort. I know we have enough talent."

Others were not so sure but liked the idea of a fresh face behind the bench. A veteran beat writer described 2003-04 as, "A moment of truth for the franchise."

If the truth be known, Islanders fans were tickled with the new model and, specifically a few refreshing faces, including a 1996 Anaheim draft discard -- Hunter. 

His arrival in The Show didn't even create a murmur in 1996 when the Ducks plucked him in the fourth round. A graduate of the Prince Albert (Junior) Cougars, Hunter was traded to Nassau for a draft pick in 1996.

"We wound up sending him to Bridgeport," said Milbury. "It was hard to tell then just how good he might be."

A native of Red Deer, Alberta, Hunter began obtaining attention in 2001-02. He reached the 30-goal plateau in the AHL for a total of 65 points in 80 games with Bridgeport.

Milbury: "It looked like he was a year or two away from really becoming a factor for us."

That year would be 2003-04. Hunter made the big club from training camp, and was put on a line with the returning Czerkawski. Trent was the cream in Mariusz' coffee.

"It didn't take long to realize that Trent and Mariusz had good chemistry," said coach Sterling. "That became obvious pretty early on once the regular season began."

Exhibit A was a home game against the Penguins on October 25, 2003. Hunter potted his first NHL goal and then another while Merry Mariusz got a pair. Before the game was half over, the Isles were up 5-0.

This didn't sit well with the Visitors reigning monarch, Mario Lemieux. Never idolized at the Coliseum, Mario was more lumberjack than leader on this night, chopping Eric Cairns and later Roman Hamrlik.

The fuss actually carried over after the Isles had disposed of their foes, 7-3. Were it not for metal fence separating the dressing room corridor a battle royal would have ensued.

Grand and glorious as he was, Lemieux's post-game comment was, "No comment."

The ambience was a lot more cheery on the other side.

"We're looking like a playoff team," said the revived Czerkawski. "We think we can beat any team."

They did win on the ice as well as in a novelty skirmish before the holidays. It would go down in history as "The Battle of the Santas" although it was meant to produce joy to the fans, not hostility.

Just two days before Christmas, the Isles had a home game against Philly's Flyers. What made it, hopefully, festive was a good-natured, holiday-themed promotion.

Any fan dressed as Santa Claus could come to the game for free. To the club's marketing brigade, the reaction was stupefying; especially considering that a full Santa suit cost as much as a hockey ticket.

Despite that fact, almost 500 Kris Kringles showed up in full regalia. They were informed that between the first and second period, they'd be invited on to the ice and have a chance to wave to the adoring audience.

There was, however, an aberration this time around. The festive occasion turned into an insurrection at the center face-off circle.

As it happened a pair of the Santas were unwanted intruders. They each unbuttoned their red sweaters and revealed something in blue nobody wanted to see -- a Rangers jersey.

Faster than you can say "Billy Smith," the legit Santas rushed them and, for a brief moment, Christmas cheer gave way to Christmas jeer. A voice from above - i.e. a public address announcement - eventually ended the Santa Brawl:

"All Santas will be escorted from the building," warned the man behind the Coliseum PA system. "I repeat, no violence, or all Santas will be escorted from the building."

By then, the two Rangers-fans-turned-Santas were well-protected, the mess was cleared up and just about everybody had a good laugh; not to mention a rare memory.

"It told me about how intense our rivalry has been over the years," said Rick DiPietro, barely suppressing a grin that ended on Hempstead Turnpike.

"When you step into this rivalry, you can feel it. It's so easy to feed off the crowd." 

Meanwhile, the push for the playoffs continued.

They'd get a major test on the day after Christmas. The defending champion Devils were playing host at the Meadowlands, well aware that the Isles had previously beaten them, 5-4.

Once again, Sterling's outfit looked invincible as it jumped into a 3-0 lead. But the trio-margin was dreaded this time. The Champs tied the count, sending the match into overtime.

By this point in time during the campaign, Mark Parrish was en route to a 24-goal season. The former Panther proved the star of the night when he beat Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur at 1:25 of OT.

"I call it the best win of the season so far," crowed Sterling. "Let's hope there are more on the way."

Devils coach Pat Burns was not hesitant about lauding the winners. "The Islanders play us tough," the Champs coach said. "Any time a team beats Brodeur, they're doing something right."

Such impressive victories cemented Sterling's coaching future on the Island. His low-key style appealed to the players and they responded in kind.

Sterling: "One way to tell how good our club is will be by seeing how they fare against the league's better teams."

So far, so good, and on February 3, 2004 they would get another opportunity to strut their stuff. 

Vancouver's Canucks had reached elite status in the Western Conference and was in town for a major test. The Visitors included the West Coast Express, the formidble Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison line, as well as the young, but emerging Sedin Twins.

"They had us on the run for a while," recalled Adrian Aucoin, who had become the bedrock of Sterling's blue line corps, "But by this time, we had confidence in our ability to come from behind."

That was possible because, by mid-season, Sterling had crafted a line led by Peca centering between Asham and Czerkawski.

In almost no time at all, they powered three straight goals to push the Isles ahead by one before the Canucks tied the count, forcing overtime. But there would be no wilting this time. 

A mere 36 seconds were required before Aucoin left the crowd in stitches with a wicked blast that proved to be the 4-3 game-winner. "It was," said DiPietro, "One of our best wins of the season."

While the Isles were treating their customers with nail-biting competitive hockey, they hardly were alone in the marathon that led to the Playoff finish line. 

What they needed as much as anything was game-stealing goaltending, mostly from the captivating New Englander Rick DiPietro. 

A cup-of-coffee kind of guy until now, the handsome kid had proven both acrobatic as well as one of the best puck-moving goaltenders in NHL history.

Former Islander goalie Chico Resch was one among many onlookers who were amazed by DiPietro's daring.

"He makes that quick hard pass up to either his defensemen or forwards," admired Resch, "And that often translates into a good offensive thrust by the team."

But on March 23, 2004 -- with the finish line not far away -- DiPietro's mates were looking less for his offensive capabilities and more toward his puck-stopping ability.

In his previous game, DP had blanked the eventual 2004 Cup-winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-0. This time -- against the Washington Capitals -- he was perfect again. 

Defenseman Roman Hamrlik eased Rick's tension by scoring early in the opening frame. A bit later, the Isles produced two more red lights with a 1:17 segment while DiPietro did the rest -- 3-0.

Not since the days of that Swedish Sensation, Tommy Salo, had an Islanders goalie posted back-to-back shutouts.

"It's all about how I see the puck," Rick explained. "We're playing well enough and if we keep it up we'll be downright dangerous; especially if we make the playoffs."

It sounded good, but not so fast. Nothing yet had been clinched. Or, as the legendary Yankees catcher-philosopher Yogi Berra liked to say, "Nothing is in the bag until it's in the bag."

The Sabres were hellbent on catching their New York State rivals while all signs indicated that the playoff entrant wouldn't be known until early April.

And so it was that on April 12, 2004 the Nassaumen visited Raleigh to face the Canes. The playoff berth was within reach; provided of course that DiPietro held up his end of the bargain.

That he did, fortified by a four-goal second period and a pair of goals each from Mariusz and Adrian. Neither Canes goalie, Kevin Weekes nor Arturs Irbe, could close the flood gates. 

"We got what we had aimed for at the start of the season," crowed DiPietro who would finish his rookie season having played 50 games. "It was a great run to the wire."

Rick's 23-18-5 won-loss-tie mark proved that he belonged in the bigs. As for the immediate post-season, the Uniondale squad would face the sizzling Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Bring 'em on, bring 'em on," snapped Parrish, "We're ready for 'em!"

So was Sterling who, only a year earlier had been a veritable unknown on Hempstead Turnpike.

"I'm happy for the 24 guys in the room," the rookie coach concluded. "They didn't back in but won the berth the right way."

Perhaps Aucoin, who developed into a defense star, summed it up best for himself and his mates:

"It's so fun to know where you're going is where you want to be!"

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