If the Islanders had any lingering doubts about starting
goaltender Tommy Salo, then after the first 14 games this season,
those doubts should be gone.
Especially after Salo was spectacular in stopping 38 out of 39
shots to defeat the Maple Leafs 3-1 and even the Isles' record
this season at 7-7-0, good enough for a first place tie in the
Parity Conference, Eastern Division (aka "Atlantic.")
"I felt good out there, I just played my game," said Salo, who is
tied for the NHL lead with seven victories this season.
"Sometimes my teammates play well in front of me. This time I
played really well."
"I think that was as good as he has been and he has been good on
a number of occasions this year," said coach/general manager Mike
Milbury. "It was pretty obvious he won the game for us. That was
the worst we have played in a long time. Tommy has been more
focused, more confident, and the guys around him have more
confidence in him."
"We know that on many occasions he has bailed us out, and tonight
was a perfect example of that," said defenseman David Harlock.
Earlier this season, Salo became the only goaltender in Islanders
history to earn back-to-back shutouts on the road. Yup, the only
one. Billy Smith, Chico Resch, Glenn Healy and Ron Hextall never
did it. Neither did the immortal George Maneluk. And the
legendary Danny Lorenz? Not even close.
The whole season has served as proof that Salo is a new, more
confident goalie. It's what Milbury hoped would happen when
backup netminder Eric Fichaud was traded last summer and Milbury
anointed Salo the new No. 1 goalie. This, after referring to the
pair for months as "Number 1" and "Number 1A."
That confidence, plus a new defensive system employed by
assistant coach Steffan Lunner, who coached Salo with the Swedish
National Team, has translated into an improved goalie.
Salo has won everywhere he has played, except in the NHL. He led
Sweden to the gold medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics in
Lillehammer, then led Denver and Utah to International Hockey
League titles in 1995 and 1996. He guided Sweden to the title at
the World Ice Hockey Championships in 1997.
But entering this season, Salo was 45-68-14 with a 2.83
goals-against average with the Islanders, and had been criticized
often for allowing what were considered to be "soft" goals.
He'd been known for poor responses to criticism, and is rumored
to have broken down in tears when GM Milbury attacked his record
in an arbitration hearing a couple years ago. (Milbury apologized
afterwards by giving Salo a new contract.)
But this year, with a more capable defense in front of him, and
the confidence that comes from being the number one goalie, he's
raised his play another notch.
"Everyone knows that Tommy has had trouble sometimes with
criticism," defenseman Bryan Berard said. "But this season he is
playing with confidence. . . He's doing the job."
The Isles picked up some speed for the second line this past week
when they acquired forward Ted Donato from the Boston Bruins for
left wing Ken Belanger.
That means that Mike Milbury is either employing or paying 97.3%
of the Americans who he knew when he worked for the Bruins.
Milbury was said to be considering a strategy to hire or trade
for all the Welsh defensemen who once played for the Bruins when
he was informed there haven't been any.
The 29-year-old Donato is a three-time 20-goal scorer who signed
a one-year contract with the Bruins on October 1st. Donato has
spent his entire seven-year career with the Bruins and collected
16 goals and 23 assists in 79 games last season. He has 113 goals
and 142 assists in 464 NHL games. His best season was 1993-94,
when he scored 22 goals and established career highs with
32 assists and 54 points.
"He gives us terrific speed," Milbury said. "I think we've got a
very useful player." Donato, who was an Ivy League graduate,
also gives the Isles that all-important entry in this season's
Jeopardy "NHL Week" tournament.
The 24-year-old Belanger had a goal and an assist with 30 penalty
minutes in nine games. "Ken brings us some size and toughness at
forward," said Bruins assistant general manager Mike O'Connell.
"He's big, he can skate and he's tough."
Belanger spent the past four seasons with New York, which
acquired him from Toronto as part of a four-player trade in
January 1996. He also takes with him the nickname "Sandman," due
to his propensity with the fists and also the fact he looks a
*lot* like the lead singer of Metallica.
Quote of the year must go to Mike Milbury, who returned from
Vienna after holdout Zigmund Palffy's agent Paul Kraus rejected
the Isles' latest contract proposal.
"It's too bad he lives in the city," Milbury said. "He's
depriving some small village of a pretty good idiot."