Reliving the Magical Final Week of the Islanders’ 2006-07 Season

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In the post-dynasty era of the New York Islanders, there was only a handful of memorable moments for the franchise.



There was the Easter Epic in 1987. The Magical run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993. Shawn Bates’s penalty shot goal in the first round of the 2002 playoffs that shook the Coliseum to its core.

Then there was the last week of the ’06-07 season.

It was a culmination of a year-long battle for the organization.

Heading into that year, the Isles had missed the playoffs the season prior. That summer, former owner, the late Charles Wang, had hired Neil Smith to be the general manager and team legend Pat LaFontaine as a senior advisor. Smith’s tenure lasted just 41 days, as did LaFontaine’s. That episode brought upon a new sense of ridicule and embarrassment to the organization from hockey pundits. Wang then tabbed former goalie Garth Snow, who had been with the organization for several years and just recently retired, as Smith’s replacement.

Smith had already done a solid job re-tooling the Isles — signing veteran free agents Brendan Witt, Tom Poti, Mike Sillinger, and Chris Simon — before Snow added to the group with Richard Park, Andy Hilbert, Sean Hill, and Viktor Kozlov. The Islanders emerged a veteran-laided squad for head coach Ted Nolan when training camp arrived.

On to the season, where the Islanders got off to a rough start with a losing streak to begin the year. By December, they had found their footing enough to grab first place in the Atlantic Division. After claiming that spot, Snow got greedy.

He made two deals with the rival Flyers, acquiring d-man Freddy Meyer for forward Alexei Zhitnik, and forward Randy Robitaille for Mike York.

“That year was obviously one of my favorite,” Meyer told me in an interview I did with him over a year ago. “We had a lot of really good guys on that team. Not just playing wise, but also the veterans that made sure to stir the pot and get us going in the right direction.”

The short-term effect of both trades didn’t help the Isles, who went on another long losing streak at the end of December. After they found their footing again, the Islanders competed as a fringe playoff team.

Snow, again, made more deals.

Just prior to the trade deadline, he dealt Grebeshkov to the Oilers for hard-shooting blueliner Marc-Andre Bergeron. Then on deadline day, with the Isles sitting pretty in the sixth slot in the East, he traded for “Captain Canada”, Ryan Smyth.

Everything seemed to be set in place for the Islanders to make noise down the stretch. But, two incidents — Chris Simon’s controversial swinging of his stick at the Rangers’ Ryan Hollweg and star goalie Rick DiPietro getting concussed multiple times, most notably for being run over trying to play a loose puck in Montreal — predated that miraculous final week. To make things worse, backup goalie Mike Dunham was poor in relief of DiPietro and the Isles had lost three in a row, putting their season on life support.

Then an unknown third-string goalie by the name of Wade Dubielewicz came out of nowhere. Dubielewicz, 27, had been called up to replace Dunham back on March 15th but didn’t make an appearance until the Islanders’ 5-2 defeat to Ottawa in the fifth to last game of the year.

With four games left, the Isles found themselves four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. It would be an arduous test if they wanted any shot at the postseason, as they would have to go through the hated Rangers, the on the fringe Maple Leafs, the lowly Flyers, and the already playoff-bound Devils.

April 3, 2007, the Islanders and Blueshirts squared off.

In a playoff-style affair, the Isles played well enough to get the game to a shootout. But they needed the second point desperately to keep pace with the Canadiens who won 2-0 that night over Boston. The shootout saw the beloved Miroslav Satan strike first for the Islanders. Dubielewicz then made a poke check on the Blueshirts’ Michael Nylander which would become his calling card not only that week but in Islanders lore. The legendary Jaromir Jagr was the Rangers’ last hope to extend the shootout.

Again, Dubielewicz went back to the well.

The Isles won the shootout and the game 3-2 and kept their playoff hopes alive.

Two nights later on April 5th against Toronto — who were three points ahead of the Isles and one point out of the eight spot — the Islanders were again in a dogfight. It was early in the third though where those wavering playoff hopes began to grow stronger.

Jason Blake would put the Isles ahead for good after breaking a 2-2 tie with his 40th goal of the season early in the frame. Aaron Asham and Satan added insurance goals and the Isles won 5-2, giving them points 87 and 88.

Now with a back-to-back weekend to end the regular season, two points separated the Isles and eighth place.

On Saturday, April 7th, the Isles went into Philadelphia for an afternoon matinee. They took nothing for chance with the Flyers, establishing a 3-0 lead midway through the second on goals by Satan, Alexei Yashin and Richard Park. Things got a little hairy with Philly making it 3-2 with a minute left in the game. But Satan, who was an unsung hero all season, hit the empty net to give the Islanders a decisive 4-2 victory.

Later that night, the Isles needed the Leafs to lose to Montreal to have any shot at making Sunday’s game in New Jersey meaningful.

“We actually had a team meal in New Jersey the night before that Sunday game to watch the Toronto-Montreal game,” Asham said for a piece I did with him last year. “We needed Toronto to lose. Watching that back and forth game, we found out that night that the next day was going to be do or die for us.”

Toronto would go on to win a wild affair 6-5 in what was their 82nd game of the season. At the end of the night, the standings read Toronto 91, Montreal 90, Islanders 90.

The Islanders’ destiny was in their own hands: Win and they’re in.

My family — mom, dad, older brother — made the trip for that Easter Sunday matinee in East Rutherford. My Dad had decided the day before, once they won in Philadelphia the day before, we had to be there.

And true to Howie Rose’s famous line after Richard Park scored the game’s first goal past Scott Clemmensen, “It’s Long Island south here in East Rutherford”, it truly was an Islander-heavy crowd.

Park would score again just before the eight-minute mark of the third period to make it 2-0 and the Islander contingent began to get louder and louder.

As the minutes waned down in the third, the entire building — and the Islanders bench — was a ball nervous energy.

The Devils would make it a one-goal game after John Madden scored with just under six minutes remaining in regulation. The score now 2-1, the Isles playoff aspirations came down to a frantic five minutes.

As the final seconds ticked down, the Devils were pressuring Dubielewicz and the Islanders furiously. With under a second remaining, Madden tucked home a rebound after Dubielewicz fell down and couldn’t get up.

Both the green light and red light both flashed.

The goal counted, and shock just rattled through Islanders country.

Well, it was on to overtime to decide the Isles’ season. The extra session was full of chances but no goals, meaning a shootout would decide the game.

Both teams scored in round one. Viktor Kozlov went for the Isles to start round two. He went five-hole on Clemmensen giving his team the lead in the shootout. That left Sergei Brylin against Dubielewicz.

Brylin came in on Dubielewicz, who once again went to his patented poke check.

The Islanders won the game and were in the playoffs in about as dramatic a fashion possible.

“For that next game to go to a shootout, and for Dubie (Wade Dubielwicz) to stand on his head, it was quite the experience,” Asham said.

“Individually, that was my first real taste of playoff hockey,” former Islander Jeff Tambellini noted in an interview I did with him. “I remembered before the season The Hockey News not having us in the playoffs and everybody in the room took it personally. Getting hot toward the end, and being able to jump in on those last couple of games, was awesome.

“That last game in New Jersey was the biggest game of my career to that point.”

That entire week still lives on 13 years later in the hearts of Islanders fans as one of the great moments in a decade that didn’t have many. Sadly it ended up also becoming the last competitive-wise for the organization and fans would see for another six years.

People will always remember those four games though.

The angst, chest-beating moments, and unfathomable finish. That was the last week of the 2006-2007 Islanders.

 

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