ON THE HORIZON – Kevin Poulin, G, Bridgeport (AHL)

As goaltender Kevin Poulin lay on the Nassau Coliseum ice last February writhing in pain after dislocating his left kneecap during warm-ups, Islander fans eerily felt like they were experiencing a bit of déjà-vu. Former top overall pick Rick Dipietro has battled through recurring injuries for the past five seasons, ever since he had his hip surgically repaired in the spring of 2008.

Dipietro’s hope for a successful run on Long Island seems to be in serious doubt, and a 15-year, 67.5 million dollar contract signed back in the fall of 2006 further haunts a die-hard fan-base, desperately hoping for success in the final seasons at the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike.

Luckily, Poulin’s injury only cost him the final few games of the 2010-11 National Hockey League campaign, as his off-season rehabilitation was deemed a major success. The 21-year-old Montreal native’s play in Bridgeport this season, along with a one-game audition on Long Island back in December has many in the Islanders organization excited about his future between the pipes.

“I was caught in a rut (on the ice) during warm-ups. It wasn’t fun,” said the 6-foot-2 Poulin, who was selected in the fifth round (126th overall) by the Islanders in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. “But my knee is perfectly fine. I don’t feel any pain or any restrictions.

“I was able to rehab right after I suffered the injury in February, and was back in goal for our (Bridgeport’s) first game in October.”

Ironically, Poulin’s prosperity in goal almost never materialized.

While playing as an 11-year old in a players-vs.-parents exhibition game back in Montreal, Poulin’s peewee hockey team was in dire need of a net-minder, as the team’s starter had suffered an injury. In stepped in Poulin, who instantly fell in love with the action that the goaltending position would command.

“I was a stay-at-home defenseman as an 11-year old,” recalled Poulin. “From squirt hockey to peewee hockey, that’s the position I would play.

“But even as a kid, I was always very athletic. I also really enjoyed diving everywhere to get the puck.”

Instantly, Poulin would pattern his game after two sturdy, butterfly-style goaltenders in 19-year NHL veteran and future hall-of-famer Dominik Hasek and fellow French-Canadian and current Vancouver Canuck net-minder Roberto Luongo.

Coincidentally, Luongo was selected fourth overall by the Islanders in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. He played 24 games on Long Island during the 1999-2000 NHL campaign, before being dealt along with Olli Jokinen to the Florida Panthers for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish on June 24, 2000 – the same day that former general manager Mike Milbury selected DiPietro with the first overall selection in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.

“Both Dominik and Roberto are hybrid goaltenders,” said Poulin. “And their butterfly style is how I like to play.”

Through his early teen years, Poulin would continue to hone his limited goaltending skills on the peewee level, but it wasn’t until he latched on to goaltending coach Daniel Freschette as a member of the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) that the-then 16-year-old Poulin truly believed that his NHL future would be as a goaltender.

“When Daniel got a hold of me, we started from scratch,” said Poulin. “He was my first true goaltending coach, and he made things very simple.

“We worked on reading plays and positioning.”

As a rookie in Victoriaville, Poulin played in 24 games. He went 10-6 and posted a respectable 3.34 goals against average. He was backing up 19-year-old QMJHL veteran Jean-Christophe Blanchard.

Blanchard would begin the 2007-08 QMJHL campaign – Poulin’s second – as the Tigres’ top goaltender, but was shipped off to Rimouski midway through the season, paving the way for the 17-year-old Poulin to handle the reigns.

Despite finishing with a less-than-robust 18-23-3 record and a 3.75 GAA, he still was asked to participate in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top Prospects game, as the 2008 NHL Entry Draft approached.

“The prospects game allowed me to compete with others, who were also being drafted,” said Poulin. “I realized that I could play against them, and compete on the next level.”

After being selected by the Islanders in the summer of 2008, Poulin quickly returned to Victoriaville for more seasoning.

Over the next two seasons in Victoriaville, Poulin played in 93 games, winning 53 of them. His fourth and final season – the 2009-10 campaign – made believers of many in the hockey circle, including a former Montreal legend, who handed Poulin with the most flattering of compliments.

Patrick Roy, an 18-year NHL goaltender – 10 years playing for the Montreal Canadiens – and current Quebec Ramparts (QMJHL) head coach and general manager declared Poulin as the best goaltender in Canadian Junior Hockey.

“Everyone knows what he achieved,” said Poulin of Roy. “I have never really talked to him, but it gave me a huge boost in confidence.”

Poulin finished the 2009-10 season with a 35-16 record and an ever-so-shrinking 2.63 GAA, posting a .916 save percentage. He was named second-team all QMJHL, beaten out by current St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Allen.

Following the season, the Islanders organization quickly signed Poulin to a three-year entry level contract, as he was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport to open the 2010-11 season.

In 15 games in the ‘A’, Poulin went 10-5 and posted a miniscule 2.19 GAA. His play, coupled with further injuries to Dipietro’s knee, allowed the then 20-year-old Poulin to earn the promotion to Long Island to serve as Nathan Lawson’s back-up.

“It was unbelievable to get the call up to Long Island,” said Poulin. “It was a dream come true.”

After stopping all 19 Edmonton Oilers shots in relief of an ineffective Lawson on January 6, Poulin would earn his first National Hockey League start on January 8 in Colorado. Poulin stopped 34-of-37 Avalanche shots and teammate John Tavares netted an overtime goal, as the Islanders prevailed, 4-3 in overtime. Poulin earned the game’s third star in the 4-3 victory.

He would win three more times to close out the NHL season, finishing the campaign with a 4-2-1 record in 10 appearances, posting a healthy 2.44 GAA.

He credited his success to the camaraderie he had with his team’s other goaltenders.

“Ricky (Dipietro) and I talked a lot,” said Poulin. “He, along with Al (Montoya) made sure that things were comfortable for me.”

Following his first taste of NHL play, Poulin returned to Long Island this past summer to compete with fellow prospects Anders Nilsson and Mikko Koskinen, along with Dipietro, Montoya and newest Islander goaltender Evgeni at Islanders training camp.

The logjam provided Poulin with healthy competition, and also provided the 21-year-old with perspective moving forward.

“We have plenty of good goaltenders in this organization,” said Poulin. “The main thing for me is progression.”

Poulin, Nilsson and Koskinen all returned to Bridgeport to compete for the top spot under first-year head coach Brent Thompson. The former head coach of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces quickly grew fond of Poulin’s athleticism.

“Kevin is 6-foot-3 and has great lateral movement,” said Thompson. “He reads the play very well, and works very hard.

“The funny thing about Kevin is that he doesn’t lack confidence. Sometimes he might be too overconfident.”

The triumvirate quickly shrunk to two as the start of the AHL season progressed, as Koskinen grew tired of his lack of playing time. He returned overseas to play for KalPa in the Finnish Hockey League.

Both Poulin and Nilsson played well, despite the lack of experience in front of them.

Ironically, both the young net-minders would be summoned back to Long Island to earn an NHL start, as Dipietro (concussion), Montoya (concussion) and Nabokov (groin) all were sidelined due to injury.

Nilsson lost in his debut, 5-0 at the hands of Pittsburgh Penguins, while Poulin saved 26-of-29 shots in an Islanders 3-2 setback to Dallas.

Poulin quickly returned to Bridgeport as the 2011-12 calendar year closed. He earned valuable minutes for Thompson and the Sound Tigers and nearly stamped his name in American Hockey League history.

As the 2012 calendar year commenced, Poulin recorded back-to-back-to-back shutouts, stopping all 76 shots he would face in 4-0 victories over Worcester, Manchester and Portland.

With an eye on earning that elusive fourth consecutive shutout at Providence on Sunday afternoon, Poulin twirled another gem, but fell 30 minutes short of the AHL mark for consecutive shutout minutes.

Bruins forward Calle Ridderwall beat Poulin five-hole at 3:37 of the second period to stop the streak at 221 minutes and 54 seconds.

Despite allowing that goal and a second tally to Ridderwall late in the game, Poulin would stop 22 of 24 Bruins shots in a 3-2 Sound Tigers shootout victory – the team’s fourth straight win to open up the 2012 year.

For the season, Poulin’s record is 11-12 with a 2.77 GAA.

Despite his standing at one game under .500, Poulin isn’t discouraged. He is still embracing the process at hand.

“I want to fully be ready when I get called up again,” said Poulin. “Whether it takes one year or three years, the organization will know when I am ready.”

Still, Poulin is enjoying his time in Bridgeport, as his 22nd birthday quickly approaches in April.

“There are a lot of guys in Bridgeport who played both in college and in juniors,” said Poulin, who enjoys hanging out with his teammates at the Café in downtown Milford. “My teammates are very nice and the guys here are all on the same page.

“We all have one goal in mind, to play in the NHL.”

Yet, with a frustrated fan-base desperately craving some present-day success, could Poulin’s recent hot streak coupled with the team’s rash of injuries and inconsistencies between the pipes lead to a full-time call up.

Will Poulin continue to lead the Baby Islanders past the NHL All Star Game, scheduled for January 29 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa?

Only time will tell.