Everyone wanted to know how the New York Islanders’ third-string goalie felt after leading the team to a stunning final week surge to the playoffs. The push of people was so strong that a divider shielding him nearly crashed down.
“Good job Dubie,” Islanders captain Alexei Yashin said Sunday moments after the Islanders’ stirring 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils that secured the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Dubielewicz spent much of this season and most of his professional career in the minors. He claims he has been held back more by his size than his ability. After this week, the 28-year-old B.C. native is the biggest man on campus.
“I’m a pretty confident guy,” he said after his 17th NHL game over three seasons including eight this season. “You always doubt whether you can play at this level. This is the best league in the world, so if you can compare yourself once in a while it’s a good feeling.
“This just proves to me that I can play here, and that’s important.”
If the weight around him was heavy at the end of the regular season, it’s only going to get stronger quickly.
The Islanders won four straight to close the season, beating the New York Rangers, Toronto, Philadelphia and the Devils. That was just enough to push them past Toronto and Montreal on the final day.
Dubielewicz was in net for all of them, picking up the slack left by No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro’s concussion and the ineffectiveness of backup Mike Dunham. He gave up two goals in each of the four victories, including Sunday when the Devils tied it with 0.9 seconds left in regulation.
“That was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
But he regrouped quickly, holding off the Devils in overtime and then poke-checking the puck away from Sergei Brylin on the final attempt in the shootout.
For that, the Islanders earned the right to play the top-seeded Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, those Sabres, who won an NHL-best 53 games and scored a league-high 308 goals.
All indications are that Dubielewicz will be in charge of slowing them down since DiPietro still hasn’t resumed practising following the second of two concussions in a span of 12 days. Dubielewicz received player of the week honours from the NHL on Monday, and the Islanders’ official Web site moved his online bio from the “In the System” section to No. 1 goalie on the depth chart.
“Ricky is a huge part of this team but (Dubielewicz) just didn’t feel like there is any pressure,” forward Ryan Smyth said. “He just came to play and showed that. He played with conviction and confidence and gave us a chance to win.
“I have great respect for a lot of players in this locker room, and he’s one of them.”
Smyth got to Long Island in late February, and might be gone as a free agent as soon as July. But for now he is a key part of the Islanders, who haven’t won a playoff series since 1993.
Smyth is trying to spark a run comparable to his Edmonton Oilers of a year ago, who went from the eighth seed in the West to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
After the heart-stopping win over the Devils on Sunday, less than 24 hours after New York sweated out Toronto’s 6-5 victory Saturday against Montreal that was necessary to keep the Islanders alive, they have no fears in facing the Sabres.
“I think a lot of people counted us out, but the big thing is this team didn’t quit,” defenceman Brendan Witt said. “It’s sweet to get in and now we have to focus on how to beat Buffalo.”
Just a week earlier, first-year coach Ted Nolan called an emergency team meeting on an off day following consecutive dominating losses to Buffalo and Ottawa that seemed to doom any post-season hopes. Nolan sensed his team was having “Woe, is me,” feelings following significant injuries to DiPietro, defencemen Radek Martinek, Bruno Gervais and Freddy Meyer, and the season-ending suspension to rugged forward Chris Simon.
“Our team bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” said Nolan, in his first NHL job since being fired by the Sabres in 1997 after winning coach of the year honours. “We sat there and decided. We’ve got to either move on or stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start working.
“The next day we had a great game, and there was no better antidote for us than playing the Rangers. That got our emotions back.”