It wasn't a victory, but ultimately, it was a net gain. DiPietro gave up four goals and made 24 saves in the Islanders' 4-3 loss, but at least he was back.
He was effective in the first and third periods, stopping nine of 10 shots in the first after allowing Toby Petersen's goal on a deflection at 4:44 and turning aside all three shots in the third. But he allowed three goals in the second period.
Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo scored in the first period for the Islanders, and Frans Nielsen scored on a backhander into an open net at 7:47 of the second for a 3-2 Isles lead. But Brenden Morrow's wrister tied it at 8:11 and Brad Richards snuck a juicy rebound past DiPietro's left skate to give Dallas a 4-3 lead at 16:47.
DiPietro, who began rehabbing a surgically repaired knee in August, had to endure a lengthy and agonizing process to fight his way back to the NHL. After experiencing the grueling early-morning workouts, the strict diet and weight loss plan to make him less susceptible to injury, the conditioning stints with Bridgeport and the incessant speculation that surrounded his return, he finally received his reward for hard work.
"It's tough to describe," he said before the game. "I'm more excited than anything. It's been a long time coming. It's been a lot of hard work. It was a thrill just to play in Bridgeport and I can only imagine that tonight's going to be pretty special."
DiPietro said he expected a whirlwind of emotions. "You've got to get your feet wet at some point. No better time than the present," he said. "I feel good, excited, and hopefully that adrenaline will carry me through the game."
DiPietro played only five games last season because of injury. Since his most recent NHL appearance, a 5-4 loss to Phoenix on Jan. 2, 2009, he has played in four AHL games for Bridgeport and was 1-2-0.
Given DiPietro's lengthy road to recovery, coach Scott Gordon said expectations should be tempered. "I think we have to be realistic and know [that] as hard as he's worked and as good a physical condition as he's in right now, it's not going to be the same guy," he said. "It's going to take a little bit of time."
DiPietro said before the game he would try to keep it simple. "Make smart plays, don't overhandle it," he said of his strategy. "We have very mobile defensemen, so if I can leave it for them and allow them to make plays, it's better for all of us. I'll try to play as smart as possible."
The significance of this game was not lost on his teammates, who have seen DiPietro's resilience throughout the recovery process. "I don't know if anyone can know what he is feeling emotionally right now," Richard Park said. "But this is a monumental moment for him. Not that it's the icing on the cake, but he probably has a sense of gratification for all he has endured."
Hours before his start, DiPietro reflected on the difficult journey to get him there.
"It's been tough. Physically it's a battle, but mentally it's even worse," he said. "It makes you realize how lucky you are and how special this opportunity is. At the end of the day, it's made me a better player and a better person, and hopefully, that translates on the ice."