The internet is laden with columns and blogs from journalists and irate followers of the New York Islanders who questioned the sanity of the club's owner, a chap named Charles Wang.


"He's a very foolish man," a guy wrote in September. "He's the reason this franchise is the laughingstock of pro sports. He doesn't care about hockey and he doesn't care about winning. He cares only about saving money. He hires a backup goalie, Garth Snow, to be his general manager for one reason and one reason only -- he doesn't have to pay him much. Wang is weird and cheap."


And the shots went on and on.


Snow's incompetent, the critics whined. Ted Nolan was a ridiculous choice to be the Isles' coach this season because, well, because he was blackballed from the NHL long ago.


And there was widespread criticism, remember, of the 15-year contract given to goaltender Rick DiPietro.

Well, no intelligent observer is questioning any of the above now. Snow may have been a backup goalie, but he has shown he has the tools to be a starting GM in the NHL.

The resurrection of Nolan is the feel-good story of the year. He may just wind up as the choice for the NHL's top coach for 2006-07. And DiPietro, well, he seems quite capable of making it through the 15-year contract.

Yes, the Isles defied standard hockey operating procedure in September by signing DiPietro to the largest contract in NHL history -- 15 years guaranteed for $67.8-million US -- and it won't end until the Massachusetts native is 40.

But, heck, with the way salaries are escalating, DiPietro could be a bargain by the time his contract is in its third or fourth season.

At 25, DiPietro is youthful, energetic, quick on his feet and very difficult to beat, and that was quite noticeable at the Air Canada Centre the other night, when the Isles edged the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2.

Heading into Thursday night, DiPietro was 23-17-5, with a 2.65 goals-against average.

"Ricky's been great," ex-Islanders superstar Mike Bossy said. "This team's going places now, and it's largely because of him."

Indeed, the Islanders have emerged to at least challenge for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. And they've achieved this without the services of their highest-profile player, centre Alexei Yashin, who's been out with a knee problem.

Nolan has the Isles believing in themselves.

The standings say the Isles are perfectly positioned for their playoff run, having reached Valentine's Day two points out of eighth place with 15 of their final 25 games on home ice starting Thursday night against the Boston Bruins.

They're at least a couple of players away from being included in the NHL's elite, but sources say Snow is working diligently to complete a deal or two before this month's trade deadline and that might mean post-season success.

"You have to credit Nolan, that's for sure," said Scott Bowman, the most successful coach in NHL history. "I really don't understand why he wasn't able to get a coaching job in the NHL for so many years, but he's demonstrated his ability again this season, just as he did with the Buffalo Sabres way back when. People can't question his coaching ability. The Islanders weren't supposed to be very competitive, but he has them playing quite well."

And, suddenly, Charles Wang isn't looking so foolish.

• So it's becoming pretty clear now that this will be the first season since the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 that Joe Sakic and company will not qualify for the playoffs.

Colorado fans are peeved, to put it mildly, but the consensus is that there's plenty of reason to believe the team will rebound quickly next season.

The Avs own some of the finest young talents in the NHL, including forwards Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolki and Mark Svatos as well as defencemen John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold.

Ty Gretzky doesn't appear to be a chip off the old block just yet.

The 16-year-old forward, whose legendary father Wayne Gretzky coaches the Phoenix Coyotes these days, has produced nine goals and nine assists in 44 games for Shattuck-St. Mary's, a Double A midget team in Faribault, Minn.

• And don't be surprised if the Minnesota Wild makes its playoff run with veteran forward Keith Tkachuk, who's being dangled as trade bait by the St. Louis Blues.