|Evgeni Nabokov has played a League-high 3,822 minutes this season.
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“To be honest, I try and concentrate on my own game and not pay any attention to what's going on around me," Nabokov told NHL.com. “There are so many good goalies with so many different styles. If you start concentrating on what they're doing, instead of focusing on your game, it could get into your head. I never once asked myself; 'What if I played this type of style or made this type of save.' I just feel I'd get lost."
This two-time NHL All-Star has yet to be sidetracked while taking the road to stardom.
"I know exactly what I need to do," he admitted.
Deep down, you'd think Nabokov harbors a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in his progression up the NHL ladder to become one of the League's most dynamic and respected goaltenders. After all, “Nabby" was selected in the ninth round of the 1994 Entry Draft, behind the likes of first-round picks Jamie Storr (seventh overall), Eric Fichaud (No. 16 overall), Evgeni Ryabchikov (No. 21 overall) and Dan Cloutier (No. 26 overall), who today is the only player of that group still playing in the NHL.
Looking back, the native of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, probably wouldn't change a thing.
"That draft (1994) was a long time ago and I don't even think about it anymore," Nabokov said. “I do think it's rare to get a goalie that late who is able to have some measure of success, but to me, it wasn't something I thought about. At the time, and even now, I've always striven to be the best goalie I can be."
Nabokov has done just that, playing in all but three games for the Sharks this season. He has played a League-high 3,822 minutes played, is first in games played (64), and wins (37-20-7), third in shutouts (six), sixth in goals-against average (2.18) and sports an impressive .908 save percentage.
The heavy workload hasn't been a problem for Nabokov either. In his first full season with the Sharks in 2000-01, Nabokov played in 66 games and had a 32-21-7 record. He played in a career-high 67 games the following season and established a personal-best in victories (37-24-5) and is sixth in League history with 40 career shutouts in eight NHL seasons. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur is tops on shutout chart among active goalies with 96 in 15 seasons, just seven behind Terry Sawchuk's record of 103 shutouts.
"I have no problem with all the work," Nabokov said. “So long as I stay disciplined, control my fitness level and make certain I'm prepared mentally, I have no problem playing that many games."
Nabokov was knocked out of a game Feb. 18 against the Islanders after a shot by Isles defenseman Radek Martinek bent his mask back toward his nose and bloodied his face midway through the second period. After receiving more than a half dozen stitches to close an inch-long gash across the bridge of his nose, he returned for the third period.
“The puck just went right through the bars on my cage," Nabokov said. “I didn't really remember much after that. The puck just hit and I felt the blood come down right away."
Sharks center Jeremy Roenick, who is witness to Nabokov's competitive verve on a daily basis, was fired up when his veteran goalie returned to the net.
"The first thing I thought was; 'It's about time he realizes what we skaters feel like,' " Roenick said. “Seriously though, there aren't many goalies like him out there with that same competitive fire. He's our backbone and the guy we rely on every night. When we don't play well, he's always there. He's one of the best goalies I've ever played with and no matter how many games he plays, he's the same steady goalie every night. That's a tribute to his dedication to what he does."
|“So long as I stay disciplined, control my fitness level and make certain I'm prepared mentally, I have no problem playing that many games." - Evgeni Nabokov|
This season in the All-Star Game in Atlanta, Nabokov became the first goalie since Nikolai Khabibulin in 2002 to shut out a team during his period at an All-Star Game. Nabokov stopped all eight Eastern Conference shots in the second period, and Khabibulin turned aside 17 shots in the third period for the World team against the North American All-Stars in Los Angeles. Nabokov put the finishing touches on his rare All-Star goose egg by denying the East's Ilya Kovalchuk twice over the final 1:03.
After his glove save with 1:03 left in the period, Kovalchuk actually fell to his back and laid on the ice for a few seconds in disbelief before rising to congratulate the goalie. “He made an unbelievable save," Kovalchuk said after the game, adding he even told Nabokov; “Great save."
In addition to countless highlight-reel saves throughout the course of his career, Nabokov is also the seventh goalie in NHL history and first of European descent to score a goal in a regular-season game. Nabokov scored March 10, 2002, when he corralled a loose puck and scored a power-play goal into an empty net with 48 seconds left in San Jose's 7-4 triumph in Vancouver.
"I remember coming out of the crease and trying to leave the puck for Brad Stuart," Nabokov said. “But for some reason, he failed to pick it up. So, I skated a bit and just shot it. I got lucky I guess."
For a player who has perfected his craft to the point of becoming one of the elite players at his position, Nabokov has certainly earned the right to a few lucky bounces.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.