DiPietro hasn’t played or even practised with the team since the second of two concussions sustained 12 days apart sidelined him following a March 25 loss to the New York Rangers. The 25-year-old goalie, in the first season of a 15-year deal with the Islanders, hopes to have a neurological exam at the end of this week that could clear him to play in the postseason.
“I felt really good,” DiPietro said. “As long as I don’t have headaches. It’s been a while since I got the nauseous feeling, so it seems like everything’s going in the right direction. Obviously you have to go through the right channels and the right steps, and hopefully I’ll be ready soon.
“It was good to be back on the ice, and around the guys, I forgot how to put my equipment on for a second, but I felt good.”
Islanders coach Ted Nolan said Dubielewicz, who played only eight games with New York this season, will likely start the opener against top-seeded Buffalo on Thursday.
Dubielewicz allowed only two goals in each game of the Islanders’ four-game winning streak that ended the season and helped them secure the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Ricky’s trying to come back but right now our whole focus is on the guys we have here,” Nolan said. “Dubielewicz is playing great, so right now it looks like he’ll continue to play. We can’t focus on the injured players, we have to worry about the guys we have.”
DiPietro missed most of three games following a mid-ice collision with Montreal’s Steve Begin on March 13. He was kicked in the head by Begin and showed symptoms of a concussion although the Islanders took time in finally confirming that diagnosis.
He was injured again against the Rangers during a game in which Sean Avery fell on his head in the crease, and DiPietro took a few shots off his mask.
“Before I do a full-tilt practice, I have to pass that (neurological) test,” DiPietro said. “I can skate by myself, and practice like I did today and get shots, but before I go full-bore team practice, I’m going to have to pass that test.”
Mike Dunham played in DiPietro’s place five times since the initial injury, but allowed 24 goals in those appearances and lost them all. Dubielewicz, who got into 17 NHL games over three seasons, could become the first goalie in 20 years to play as few as eight games in a season and become the team’s regular starter in the playoffs.
“I know this little dream can be gone as fast as it came,” he said. “We’ve been playing playoff hockey for the last week. It’s been do or die. And that’s going to help me. There’s been a lot of pressure on us, and I’ve tried to deflect it.
“We’re going in as the team that squeaked in, and we’re the No. 8 seed going to Buffalo, and not that many people expect us to win. We can just lay it out there, and that makes us dangerous.”
Yet even Dubielewicz knows that DiPietro makes the Islanders a more formidable opponent for Buffalo, which led the NHL with 53 wins and 308 goals.
“Let’s be realistic, he’s the franchise player, he’s a world-class goalie,” the 28-year-old Dubielewicz said. “When he’s in the net, we have a better chance to win. Rick’s an incredible goalie.”