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Sean Hill, right, was third among Islanders defencemen in plus-minus during the regular season (plus-6). ((David Duprey/Associated Press))

Sean Hill's Stanley Cup playoffs came to a sudden stop Friday when the NHL suspended the New York Islanders defenceman for 20 games for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances program.

The punishment will take effect immediately, so Hill will miss Game 5 of an Eastern Conference quarter-final in Buffalo against the Sabres Friday night.

The earliest Hill could return to the lineup would be the Stanley Cup finals.

Islanders general manager Garth Snow said the team supported the NHL's decision to suspend Hill.

"The New York Islanders do not support the use of performance-enhancing agents in any form," Snow added. "As for tonight, we have a game an hour away, and that's what we're going to be focused on from here on out."

Islanders coach Ted Nolan declined comment outside the club's dressing room.

Islanders spokesman Chris Botta said Hill didn't travel with the team to Buffalo's HSBC Arena for Friday's contest and was unsure whether the veteran blue-liner had returned to Long Island.

Hill signed a one-year deal worth $600,000 last summer and is eligible to be a free agent on July 1. If the Islanders' season ends Friday, Hill's suspension will continue next season without pay.

"It's unfortunate it happened, and we certainly hope that we won't have many more violations of our policy as we move forward with the program," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Canadian Press. "But this result shows that our program is working as it was designed and intended to work."

As part of the new collective bargaining agreement that ended the year-long lockout in 2005, a player receives a 20-game suspension for a first positive test and is subject to a mandatory referral to the league's substance abuse-behavioural health program for evaluation, education and possible treatment.

Every NHL player can be given up to two "no-notice" tests every year, with at least one conducted on a team-wide basis. The "no-notice" tests can be given at any time.

'Who knows what happened?'

Sabres defenceman Brian Campbell said Buffalo players were tested twice during the regular season.

"Who knows what happened?" Campbell said, before the game. "I feel bad for [Hill] that it's happened.

"You don't know what it is until everything comes out. You just have to be careful all the time."

It's the first 20-game suspension handed out under the policy.

Defenceman Bryan Berard of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche goalie Jose Theodore both failed out-of-competition tests administered by their respective national anti-doping organizations. But neither was suspended by the league because the failed tests happened before the NHL established its new policy.

Berard's urine test on Nov. 12 showed traces of the steroid 19-norandrosterone. He was banned from international competition for two years. He was tested by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency because he was on the U.S. Olympic hockey preliminary roster released last September.

Theodore, who was on Canada's preliminary 81-man Olympic eligibility list but not named to the final squad, failed a doping test Dec. 9. The urine sample showed Finasteride, a masking agent for steroids that is also commonly found in hair-restoration drugs.

News of Hill's suspension comes at a bad time for the Islanders, who trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series and have been forced to play without three other defencemen in these playoffs — Joel Bouchard (hamstring), Radek Martinek (fractured leg) and Freddy Meyer (broken finger).

Hill, 37, had a goal, 25 points and a plus-6 rating in 81 games this season, his 14th in the NHL. He was held without a point in New York's first four games in the post-season.

The Montreal Canadiens drafted Hill in the eighth round (167th overall) in 1988.

He played with the Canadiens in the 1991 and 1992 playoffs, winning a Stanley Cup ring during his rookie year.

Hill spent the 2005-06 season with the Florida Panthers, following three with Carolina, before signing with the Islanders.

The native of Duluth, Minn., has collected 60 goals and 229 assists for 289 points in 841 career NHL regular-season games.

With files from the Associated Press