Rick DiPietro eagerly faced a spirited firing squad of teammates. Short of crashing the net, there were no restrictions as DiPietro participated Tuesday in what the rehabbing goalie termed his "first full go-ahead practice.''
DiPietro looked sharp, sprawling to turn aside countless shots, often landing on his surgical right knee without hesitation. "It's getting better every week,'' an upbeat DiPietro said after a 45-minute workout at IceWorks in Syosset. "It's just more and more activity, more and more stress. It's responded well.''
"He looked good, he looked fast,'' said Jeff Tambellini, who drew DiPietro's trademark howl for scorching the net. "We're hoping he gets back nice and quick.''
DiPietro broached that subject with a strong degree of optimism. "I kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel now,'' he said.
The inevitable question, his return date, brought a slight bristle. "I think [everyone] knows by now not to ask that question, my friends and family at least,'' DiPietro said. "I'm just as excited as everyone else to get back and put this behind me. I guess the big key for me is to remain patient, not to do anything to set myself back. I'm done putting markers [dates] like that out . . ."
After daily practices, DiPietro will play some games for the AHL affiliate in Bridgeport before, if all goes well, resuming his NHL career next month.
DiPietro, 28, missed all but five games of the 2008-09 season. The franchise player, who in 2006 signed a 15-year contract for $67.5 million, has at times felt disenfranchised. "It's easy to get down,'' he said. "There were days this summer going to rehab you'd have good days and you'd have bad days. It's tough on you. It's definitely taught me a lot about myself as a person. I'm definitely a lot mentally stronger having gone through this.
"You realize how lucky you are to be a professional athlete and have something like that taken away from you for an extended period of time. It's been tough, not only on myself but I'm sure on my wife and the rest of my family.
"I made a commitment here to [owner] Charles [Wang] and to Long Island and the organization. This is where I want to be and I'm doing everything I can every day to improve and help this team get better. I know I haven't been able to do that, so I realize that and I'm sorry for it. But it's something you can't control.''
DiPietro spoke of the burden that goes with his contract. "The expectations I have on myself are far higher than any of the expectations anyone else has for myself,'' he said. "So, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be great every time I put on the pads. Unfortunately, I've been hurt and I realize that but luckily for me I've got 12 years left to rectify the situation, stay healthy and win a Stanley Cup here on Long Island.''