Even the news of goaltender Rick DiPietro’s recent physical setback couldn’t take top billing yesterday after the Islanders delivered arguably their biggest head-scratcher of the season.
The decision to call up 27-year-old Bridgeport goaltender Nathan Lawson was not so bizarre — the Islanders want to rest DiPietro, who is experiencing swelling in his surgically repaired left knee — but the decision that followed was curious, to say the least.
Instead of pursuing the most logical route — playing the steady Dwayne Roloson and having Lawson back him up — they awarded Lawson his first NHL start last night against Phoenix.
It was a testament to Lawson that he made the most of the inexplicable circumstances, turning away 32 shots to keep the Islanders in the game before falling in a 4-3 shootout. But despite a fine performance in his NHL debut, the most compelling question of the day remained.
Why give Lawson the start instead of Roloson in the first place?
"Listen, we've won two games here," head coach Jack Capuano said. " I couldn't tell you who will start next game or if we'll have anyone else up from Bridgeport next game. We haven't been winning a lot of games here, so obviously something had to change. With Nathan I have all the confidence for him to step in here."
A source told Newsday that the recent transaction was in no way related to today’s NHL roster freeze. An additional source also confirmed that Roloson is completely healthy and is not battling any health issues.
Equally puzzling was the timing of such an experiment. The Islanders entered the game coming off a rare and much-needed win; their 3-2 victory over Anaheim Thursday night was only their second in the past 22 games.
“Well, he was hurt in training camp, and [since then] he has played extremely well,” Capuano said of Lawson. “When a guy’s going well, you want to ride him, so we felt like right now is the right time.”
Lawson’s arrival made for a strange and confusing morning skate at Nassau Coliseum.
His presence on the ice would not have been so noteworthy save for the fact that Roloson and DiPietro also were on the ice — effectively thwarting any injury speculation.
After confirming that Lawson would start, Capuano explained that DiPietro was “dinged up’’ but that it was “nothing serious,’’ and that he and general manager Garth Snow decided it would be a good time to give Lawson an opportunity.
The Islanders also did not seem worried about DiPietro’s swollen knee.
“I’m not too concerned. It’s nothing serious,’’ Capuano said. “Rick wasn’t going to play tonight anyway, so it’s just good he gets a couple days’ rest.”
When asked why he skated despite the swelling in his knee, DiPietro said he felt good and is confident the setback is “minor.’’
Said the goalie, “I wouldn’t have been out there if it was anything serious.’’
Although Lawson delivered a 36-save performance Dec. 10 in Bridgeport’s 4-1 win over Providence, his numbers entering last night's contest were far from dazzling.
Since suffering a knee injury in training camp in September, Lawson is 2-4-2 in nine games played for Bridgeport, with a 3.78 goals-against average and .890 save percentage.
However, Lawson rose to the occasion last night, displaying calm under pressure throughout his first NHL start, delivering several key saves before giving up the game-tying goal to Martin Hanzal with 1:28 left in the third.
"I thought he was excellent," Capuano said after the game. "I thought he was one of our best players on the ice."
Frans Nielsen was the only Islander to find the back of the net in the shootout; Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata and Kyle Turris all scored on Lawson for Phoenix to secure the win.
"I'm pretty upset about that last goal and very, very upset about the shootout," said Lawson, who described his shootout history as "hit or miss." "That's no excuse. I've got to get better."