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Mike Dunham clearly was rusty on Thursday in his first start in six weeks. His teammates weren't much better.

The struggling New York Islanders hope starting goaltender Rick DiPietro is healthy enough to play Saturday night when they visit the Florida Panthers.

With DiPietro sidelined with a stiff neck and overall soreness, Dunham made his first start since Feb. 1 Thursday in a 5-2 loss at Ottawa.

The 10-year veteran stopped all 10 shots he faced in the first period before allowing two goals on 15 shots in the middle frame. After giving up three goals in a 76-second span early in the third, Dunham was replaced by Wade Dubielewicz, who turned away all eight shots he saw in his season debut.

"My job is to find the way to stop pucks," Dunham said. "I felt good the first two periods and then just fell apart there for the first three minutes. The puck all of a sudden just found its way into the net quickly and it got out of hand."

Dunham has played in only six games since Dec. 15, including Tuesday when he allowed five goals on 32 shots in a loss to Montreal after replacing DiPietro, who was injured in a mid-ice collision with Canadiens forward Steve Begin in the first period.

"That's part of the job as a backup, to go in stretches where you don't play," Dunham said

The Islanders (34-26-10) got late goals from Miroslav Satan and Drew Fata, but dropped to 1-3-1 in their last five games. New York is 2-3-2 in its past seven contests with both wins coming against last-place Washington.

"Mike Dunham is a great goaltender," Islanders forward Jason Blake said. "It doesn't matter who's in net - Mike, Ricky or Martin Brodeur. If you hang him out to dry, there's not much he can do back there. It wasn't his fault."

DiPietro, who had made 18 consecutive starts, didn't skate with the Islanders on Thursday morning and is day-to-day.

Dunham had his best start of the season Nov. 18 at Florida, stopping 43 shots in a 4-1 victory. He has played very well in 16 career games against the Panthers, going 7-6-0 with two ties and a 1.84 goals-against average.

The Islanders are tied with Carolina for seventh in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Toronto and the New York Rangers.

The Panthers (29-29-13) still have playoff aspirations despite sitting seven points behind the eighth spot in the East.

Florida didn't help itself Thursday with a 5-3 loss to visiting Buffalo, ending its four-game home win streak.

The Panthers outshot the Sabres 45-20, but Ty Conklin outplayed Ed Belfour, who allowed five goals on 20 shots in his franchise record-tying 22nd straight start. Belfour is expected to break the record he shares with Roberto Luongo, now with Vancouver.

"When you get 45 shots you expect a little more," said forward Nathan Horton, who had two goals. "Obviously, their goalie played good. We didn't score when we needed to and they did. That's the game."

The line of Horton, Stephen Weiss and Martin Gelinas combined for three goals and four assists, giving it 18 goals and 20 assists in the last 12 games.

The Islanders have won all three meetings with the Panthers this season, two in a shootout. New York, which has won nine of the past 12 matchups, has never swept a season series from Florida.

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