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DiPietro struggles in return to the ice

by Brian Compton
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Eleven months since he made his last start, New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro was back in action on Saturday night, more than 1,200 miles away from his NHL teammates.

Perhaps it was rust -- or maybe a few butterflies -- but DiPietro struggled in the second period in the first start of his conditioning assignment with the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers in their 7-3 win against the Springfield Falcons at The Arena at Harbor Yard.

With Isles owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow watching from a private suite, DiPietro stopped the three shots he faced in the first period. But the No. 1 pick from the 2000 Entry Draft allowed three goals on 10 shots and watched another hit the post in the second as Springfield erased a 3-0 deficit and exposed the rust one would have to expect from DiPietro, who last played on Jan. 2 against the Phoenix Coyotes. He left the game after 40 minutes and finished with 10 saves on 13 shots. He's slated to start again either next Friday in Springfield or Saturday at Hartford.

"I was nervous," DiPietro admitted afterward. "It's been a long time since I played in a meaningful game. Nerves, excitement … these guys have been great. It was good to get back in there and shake the rust off. There's still a lot of work to be done."

DiPietro, who is in the fourth season of his 15-year, $67.5 million deal, made his first save in nearly a calendar year 2:27 into the first period when he gloved Johan Motin's harmless wrister from just inside the right point. The next shot didn't come for roughly nine minutes, although DiPietro was able to swat that one away, as well.

There was hope that DiPietro -- who is trying to bounce back from knee surgery -- might see some pucks late in the first, when Springfield was awarded a power play. No such luck. The Sound Tigers didn't allow a shot for 1:15 before Springfield's Viacheslav Trukhno was nailed for a holding-the-stick penalty.

"It's tough on a goalie not to see many shots, but the team came out flying and we played great," said DiPietro, who helped the Sound Tigers reach the Calder Cup Final in 2002. "I had a couple of times to handle the puck. It's a progression. It's not always about the result, it's about the process."

The second period got off to a rocky start, as Springfield scored on its first shot -- a nothing-special drive from the right point by Motin that went through DiPietro's legs.

"It pinballed around me a little bit," DiPietro said of Motin's tally. "Would I have liked to have played better? Probably. What can I do? It's the first time that I'm out there. This is just the first step."

Springfield trimmed the deficit again at 7:50 of the second when Geoff Paukovich lifted an NHL-level backhander in front of the crease over DiPietro's right shoulder. Bill Thomas tied it with 6:16 left as he poked the puck through DiPietro's pads after the goaltender was unable to control it long enough for a faceoff.

"I didn't expect to go out there and feel like I played last week," DiPietro said. "It's been a long time. You can only do so much in practice -- the game is really where you fine-tune things and you get a sense of scrambles around the net and all that other stuff. It's a step in the right direction and hopefully I just continue to get better. It was a big night for me. We'll see how I feel when I wake up in the morning, but so far, so good."

DiPietro made it through the rest of the second unscathed as Bridgeport headed to the intermission in a 3-3 tie. While it wasn't exactly smooth sailing, DiPietro is hopeful he will be back playing on Long Island sooner rather than later. There were reports earlier this week that the Islanders have targeted Dec. 19 for DiPietro's NHL return, but the 28-year-old isn't ready to circle any date on his calendar.

"I try not to put dates on things," DiPietro said. "It's all how the injury responds. We'll see how I feel in the morning, have a good week of practice and we'll play it by ear. I just want to continue to get better. That's the biggest thing."

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