By Kerry Gwydir and Jim Morlock
Hockey officially returned to Islanders Country on a warm, Indian summer day in Western New York. But the host Sabres gave the Islanders a rude return as they beat Steve Stirling's club, 6-4, tonight at the HSBC Arena.
It was clear the Sabres were the ones flying out of the gate, with the hometown fans coaxing them on. And it was former Islander 1st rounder JP Dumont deflecting a Tomi Lydman point shot over Rick DiPietro's left shoulder just 3:11 into the game.
But after getting their skating legs going following a failed power play, the Isles got a jolt of energy as rookie Chris Campoli tallied his first NHL goal at the 6:40 mark. Trent Hunter made this play happen after a spin-around shot from the right faceoff dot gave Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller trouble. A big rebound pinged into the slot where Campoli beat Teppo Numminen to the rebound and slammed it over the outstretched Miller.
The Islanders began to generate more offense as the first period continued, but it was Miller who proved to be the best penalty killer for the hosts with several quality stops - including a redirection by Mark Parrish that was destined for the bottom corner of the net. But the save of the early season came by Miller's counterpart at the other end of the rink with eight minutes to go in the opener. In what appeared to be a sure power play goal, DiPietro made a sprawling glove stop off former Islander Tim Connolly - who had a wide-opened net yearning off a pretty passing play.
Buffalo regained the lead six minutes into the second off a goal DiPietro probably would want back when Daniel Briere snapped a wrister from a sharp angle that beat the Islander goaltender through the wickets. It appeared Tomi Pettinen had Briere angled away from danger following a great stop by Miller off a Mattias Weinhandl try moments earlier, but somehow the puck managed to find the twine in the Islanders' cage.
After weathering a 5-on-3 and watching the hosts dominated the play for a good portion of the middle stanza, Alexei Yashin found a way to even the score with six minutes to go. The Islander captain was stationed in front battling with a Buffalo defenseman as Brent Sopel pinched from his right point position snapped the puck towards the net. As he gained position in front, Yashin re-directed Sopel's try past Miller.
The tie lasted just over a minute as the Sabres once again took the play to the Islanders. This time, it was Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell doing the damage when he snuck past Jason Blake in the slot and beat DiPietro between the arm and chest protector.
The Isles had to weather another 5-on-3 late in the second, and it was DiPietro keeping his team in the game with a pair of outstanding rejections on the doorstep. The first came at the left post when Buffalo's Chris Drury had a wide-open net to one-time a blast behind the Islander goaltender. DiPietro managed to flick out his right pad to deny that opportunity. Less than 30 seconds later, the Islander keeper duplicated that acrobatic stop on another back-door chance by Jochen Hecht.
The period ended with DiPietro stepping in for Campoli, who was dropped by a late hit at the buzzer by Buffalo's Paul Gaustad. The Islander keeper left his crease and floored the Buffalo forward, touching off a mini-melee.
Buffalo's Maxim Afinogenov gave the hosts insurance three minutes into the third when he gained position on Campoli and one-timed a pass from just inside the right post.
The Islanders closed within 4-3 a fluke goal by former Sabre Alexei Zhitnik. As he crossed center ice, Zhitnik fired a harmless dump in to the Buffalo zone. The puck came floating in on goaltender Ryan Miller and took a weird hop and caught him leaning the wrong way as the puck bounced in through his legs for the goal.
But the Sabres answered right back as Briere scored 45 seconds later to give the Sabres a 5-3 lead. He knocked home a rebound in off Islanders defenseman Brent Sopel and over Rick DiPietro for his second goal of the game.
The Islanders battled back and closed within 4-3 on Jason Blake's power play goal later in the period. Blake took a pass from Sopel and snapped a wrist shot past Miller at 13:35. But with under a minute left in the game, Afinogenov sealed the win with an empty net goal with 35 seconds left.
DiPietro, who was the game's No. 2 star, made 33 saves in the loss for the Islanders, while Miller stopped 22 of 26 for the Sabres. The win was the Sabres' first against the Isles' since the 2003-04 season, snapping a six-game losing streak.
The Islanders were 1-for-7 on the power play, while the Sabres scored two power play goals on 12 chances.
Game Notes ...
Scratches for the Islanders were Arron Asham (rib strain) and Radek Martinek(healthy scratch) ... Chris Campoli, Petteri Nokelainen and Robert Nilsson made their NHL debuts tonight for the Islanders ... Alexei Zhitnik and Miroslav Satan made their Islander debuts tonight against their former club ... The Islanders are 8-17-8 in season openers and have lost the last three, including two to the Sabres ... They lost the 2003-04 opener at Washington, 6-1 ... The Islanders have allowed six goals in the last two season openers ... Tonight was the fourth time in team history that the Islanders have started the season in Buffalo ... They are 0-3-1 in season openers against the Sabres ... The Islanders have started 29 of their 33 seasons on the road ... The last time the Islanders opened the season at home was against Pittsburgh in a 4-3 loss on October 10, 1998 ... The Islanders will open the home portion of the 2005-06 season on Saturday versus Carolina ... The Islanders are 20-11-1 in home openers ... The Islanders' AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers also lost their season opener tonight, as they fell to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 8-1, at Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, PA ... Allan Rourke scored the Sound Tigers' lone goal ... Wade Dubielewicz made 10 saves on 16 shots, while Chris Madden stopped nine of 11 shots in 31:57 of relief work ... The Sound Tigers travel to Norfolk this weekend for two games (Friday and Saturday) against the Admirals.
Line Combinations for tonight's game ...
(21) Robert Nilsson-(79) Alexei Yashin-(81) Miroslav Satan
(55) Jason Blake-(16) Mike York-(7) Trent Hunter
(12) Oleg Kvasha-(17) Shawn Bates-(37) Mark Parrish
(29) Petteri Nokelainen-(17) Shawn Bates-(11) Mattias Weinhandl
(49) Eric Godard
(77) Alexei Zhitnik-(3) Brent Sopel
(25) Brad Lukowich-(14) Chris Campoli
(44) Janne Niinimaa-(8) Tomi Pettinen
(39) Rick DiPietro
(30) Garth Snow
(26) Thomas Vanek-(48) Dan Briere-(17) JP Dumont
(55) Jochen Hecht-(23) Chris Drury-(25) Mike Grier
(12) Ales Kotalik-(19) Tim Connolly-(61) Maxim Afinogenov
(76) Andrew Peters-(28) Paul Gaustad-(24) Taylor Pyatt
(5) Toni Lydman-(74) Jay McKeee
(51) Brian Campbell-(8) Rory Fitzpatrick
(10) Henrik Tallinder-(27) Teppo Numminen
(30) Ryan Miller
(43) Martin Biron