NY Sports Day

Isles Ring In New Year With a Win

UNIONDALE, NY — Before the Islanders took the ice to face the Florida Panthers in a New Year’s Eve matinee, the club introduced mascots of comic book heroes like Spiderman and the Hulk.

Ironman was also in attendance, though he did not take a picture with Rick DiPietro. The snapshot would have marked a dichotomy of durability, since the Isles franchise goaltender was once again unavailable for duty.

DiPietro was scratched from the lineup and Joey MacDonald got the start as DiPietro continues to battle a groin problem. It marked the second straight game he sat out after picking up his first win of the season Friday, when the netminder with a 15-year contract made his temporary return following his October knee surgery to repair a meniscus.

But MacDonald stopped 27 of 29 shots in helping the Islanders post a 4-2 victory Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum. Mike Comrie added his first multi-goal game of the season, scoring the tying and go-ahead goals while Sean Bergenheim and Mark Streit adding the insurance markers.

It marked a rare bright spot in a dismal month as the Isles

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lost 12 of its 14 games in December yet will embark on a four-game, seven-day West Coast road trip with points in three of its last four contests.

“We’ve seen the last three of four Stanley Cup winners, weren’t expected to be in a playoff race. Anything can happen,” said Doug Weight, who needs just one more point to reach 1,000 in his career after assisting on Comrie’s second goal. “I hope no one in this organization is writing off this year.

“I like the way we’re playing now. You never know. You go run off eight out of 10 and some teams stumble and you can find yourself in striking distance.”

MacDonald, who was named one of the NHL’s three stars of the month in November filling in for DiPietro, consistently negated defensive lapses. One of his best saves came early in the final period, when he protected a 3-1 lead by fully extending his left arm to get a glove on Gregory Campbell’s laser, preventing a Panthers shorthanded mark.

“We had a tough month but I thought over the past five games, we’ve played really well,” MacDonald said. “We’re getting a lot more puck possession and forcing the other team to get some penalties.”

The Islanders trailed Florida 1-0 after the first period but could have faced a larger deficit. MacDonald compensated for loose play in the defensive

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zone, making two spectacular glove slaves on Nathan Horton early in the opening moments.

“Joey, in the first seven minutes, was the difference for us,” coach Scott Gordon said. “We shot ourselves in the foot with the turnovers that we made coming out of our end.”

DiPietro has played in four games this season and has endured surgeries to both hips and knees since signing his record contact before the start of the 2006 season. Gordon said DiPietro’s recent groin injury is not serious and was not the result of being rushed back to the lineup.

“Ricky is in pretty good shape,” Gordon said. “It’s not like it was an issue about his knee being fully recovered. It’s a normal groin pull anybody can have. He skated this morning and right now he wants to get in and play. The injury he sustained wasn’t from his preexisting injury.”

Richard Park nearly gave the home team the lead, firing a left circle shot that went past Thomas Vokoun before getting waved off. Jon Sim tried to screen Vokoun, stationing himself right outside the crease. When the shot went in, the officials whistled Sim for goaltender interference and took the goal off the board.

Florida escaped a goal and added a tally with 1:36 left. Trevor Smith, making his NHL debut, twice failed to clear the puck in the zone, allowing Brett McLean to bang a shot that hit off the post and past MacDonald for a one-goal Florida lead heading into the first intermission.

Comrie helped the Islanders surge to a quick start in the second, where the Panthers were out-shot, 11-3. The Kyle Okposo-Comrie-Blake Comeau line continued to generate scoring chances, with Comrie tipping in Okposo’s one-time pass to tie the game 7:50 into the period.

Just 7:15 later, Comrie registered his first two-goal game since Feb. 28. While on the power play, Comrie skated to the goal line on the right post and banked a shot off Vokoun’s right leg and into the back of the net for the 2-1 lead.

“We see what can happen when we play a whole game when we play hard and skate,” Comrie said.

With 14 seconds remaining in the period, Sean Bergenheim provided MacDonald with a cushion, beating Vokoun glove-side after skating past Karlis Skrastins along the penalty box-side boards. Bergenheim raced in and released at shot at the bottom of the right circle for 3-1 lead.

Streit added another power play goal 13:34 into the third and Horton added a goal in garbage time, scoring with just 28 seconds left to add a meaningless goal for the Panthers.

“We were blocking shots defensively,” MacDonald said. “When you have guys pitching in like that, you’re going to get some good results. I think we’ve made a lot of strides the last five games. We need to keep going in the right direction.”

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