There was just one thing missing at the end of David Ullstrom's first practice in three weeks. He no longer had a locker in the cramped quarters of the Islanders' practice facility.
"I don't really mind," the 22-year-old forward said yesterday, sitting in a fold-up chair amid a pile of bags and sweaty jerseys in the center of the locker room. "I'm just excited to feel good and get back and play soon."
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Ullstrom and goalie Al Montoya were on the ice with the team for the first time since both suffered concussions against Winnipeg on Dec. 21. Coach Jack Capuano said he was not sure if either will be available for tonight's game against Detroit until he speaks with the training staff.
Ullstrom, though, considered yesterday's practice a "big step forward. We have to make a decision here and see how I feel," he said. "But I feel really good and it should be pretty soon."
In Montoya's absence, Evgeni Nabokov has started the last eight games, beginning strong but faltering a bit during the team's last two losses. The Islanders tried to remedy that by recalling Kevin Poulin from Bridgeport last night and sending Anders Nilsson down.
Poulin, who lost to the Stars, 3-2, on Dec. 15 in his only NHL appearance this season, was named the AHL's player of the week after posting three straight shutouts and four wins. He is likely to start tonight.
The Isles' problems, however, extend more to the other end of the rink. "Goaltending hasn't really been a huge issue; it's been our offensive side," Capuano said.
He harped on the quality power-play opportunities the Isles squandered in their 5-1 loss to Phoenix on Saturday, a disturbing showing for a team among the best with the man advantage this season. Detroit has allowed 28 power-play goals, which is tied for 19th in the league.
"We have to find a way for certain guys to light the lamp," Capuano said. "You have to score a couple, three goals a night to win in this league."
Ullstrom's return will add depth to those second and third offensive lines that have struggled. Yesterday, he skated with Tim Wallace, Nino Niederreiter and Jay Pandolfo.
Ullstrom and Montoya began skating again three days ago. Ullstrom, who has four points in 14 games in his rookie season, said the time away has given him a valuable chance to observe. "You've got to show up every night," he said. "There's a lot of good players out there." With Arthur Staple