Montoya getting his shot with Islanders

Tomas Fleischmann of the Panthers jumps out of

Tomas Fleischmann of the Panthers jumps out of the way of Islanders goalie Al Montoya in the firt period. (Oct. 8, 2011) (Credit: David Pokress)

Al Montoya had never made the team out of an NHL camp in six previous pro seasons, much less start a season opener. Until Saturday night.

Montoya emerged from the crowded goaltender competition and was Jack Capuano's choice to start the Islanders' season opener against the Panthers, getting the call over fully healthy Rick DiPietro and veteran Evgeni Nabokov.

Montoya, 26, shined after the desperate Isles acquired him from the Coyotes Feb. 9 for a sixth-round pick. He went 9-5-5 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .921 save percentage down the stretch, but back then, there were few healthy alternatives.

Coming into camp, it seemed as if DiPietro had the inside track on being the opening night starter. "We're going with a gut feeling," Capuano said before the game. "We're going to take it day by day -- with all positions."

If the coach, also in his first NHL season opener, wanted to send a message that contracts or experience will play no factor in determining who plays, he may have accomplished that goal.

And he did so without alienating DiPietro, the longest-tenured Islander, who was diplomatic and philosophical after finding out he would be backing up Montoya.

"It's competition . . . It's good, it's healthy," DiPietro said. "I said all the way through that my main focus coming into the season was to feel as good as I possibly could health-wise. I've done that. The coaches have decisions to make and I'm fine with it.

"Let's be honest -- I haven't made things easy on myself the last three years. You leave the door open for other guys to get their chance if you can't stay healthy. I feel good right now, my body feels good -- that's all productive stuff."

And the door was opened for Montoya Saturday night. The onetime No. 6 overall pick by the Rangers in the 2004 draft had played only five NHL games during five pro seasons in the Rangers' and Coyotes' organizations before the Islanders scooped him up.

"It's huge. I have to thank the guys here, the Islanders' organization, for giving me an opportunity," Montoya said. "You feel like you're stuck in a place for a long time, but you never know who's watching."

Montoya had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May, shortly after signing a $600,000, one-way deal with the Isles. Once Nabokov, claimed off waivers in January by the Islanders and suspended after refusing to report, decided to come to camp, there was a logjam for playing time and attention among the three goaltenders.

All three had good moments in their limited preseason work. Montoya gave up one goal in his roughly 60 minutes played over two preseason games.

"I just came to camp, worked hard and focused on what I could do," Montoya said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I got the nod tonight and I'm going to go and run with it."

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