|Evgeni Nabokov finished the World Championships with a 4-0 record; he kicked off the streak with back-to-back shutouts.
The San Jose Shark had been among the busiest goalies in the NHL this season. He appeared in 77 regular-season games, tied for the League lead. Then, his Sharks went on a 13-game playoff run, which featured four overtime games. The last of those sudden-death contests was a four-OT epic loss to Dallas in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, a loss that provided a bitter ending to such a promising season for the Sharks.
At that point, burnout would have to be accepted as a viable excuse. Not to Nabokov, however. Nabokov didn't think twice when his country called, packing his gear and heading for Quebec City to join the high-flying Russians at the 2008 World Championships.
"I never even thought about not playing," Nabokov said. "This is a honor to play for my country and I'm just happy to help in any way I can."
It was a rewarding decision as Russia won the gold medal, defeating the favored Canadians in Sunday's gold-medal game, 5-4 in overtime.
That win helped ease the disappointment of the loss to Dallas and capped a amazing personal run of success for Nabokov this season. In the regular season, Nabokov recorded 46 wins and earned a Vezina nomination for his brilliance in the net.
At the Worlds, he went 4-0, posting a tournament-best 1.25 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage. He posted back-to-back shutouts in the first two games of the playoff round and then recovered from a slow start in the gold-medal game to make 25 saves and give his team a chance to comeback for the win.
A challenge the Russians accepted, erasing a 4-2 deficit to win in OT. Sunday's win also erased the bitterness lingering from a loss to Canada in last year's gold-medal game, played before Russian fans in Moscow.
For his part in the accomplishment, Nabokov was named to the media all-star team and also honored by the IIHF as the best goaltender of the 2008 World Championships.
Nabokov's teammates weren't the least bit surprised by either their goalie's world-class performance or his dedication to his country.
"He played excellent and came in at the right time for us," coach Vyacheslav Bykov said. "We knew he couldn't play all the games because he's human; but he came in and really helped us so much. He was very good."
Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored the OT goal that delivered Russia its gold medal, appreciated Nabokov's dedication to Team Russia and pointed to him as one of the main factors in Russia's championship run.
"He was just so good and we appreciate him coming after playing 76 games and so many playoff games, then losing the way he did; he still came here and that was something," Kovalchuk said. "He made so many big saves and kept us in this game. Then the shutout against Finland (in the semifinal) was amazing, so we appreciate him so much."
Nabokov seemed to appreciate the chance to keep playing after the heartbreaking quadruple-overtime loss to Dallas.
"You know, I'd like to say I don't think about it, but I do," he admitted. "That was such a hard-fought loss and we could still be playing -- maybe with a few bounces here and there. So, yeah, that was tough to swallow; but I'm happy I came here and it helped to move on. But that's what you need to do. It's hard, but you put it behind you and this was a good way to do that."
Ron did a good job and got us to the playoffs a lot, and really when it comes down to it, it's the on the players to deliver and we didn't do that; so it's hard to have that happen. We let him down and it's too bad, but that's part of the business. - Evgeni NabokovBut even with the gold medal around his neck, there were still memories of the playoff loss lingering in Nabokov's mind. At the forefront of those thoughts was Ron Wilson, the San Jose coach fired shortly after the Sharks fell to Dallas in the second round. Nabokov is still processing that turn of events.
"You know that was surprising, to tell the truth," he said. "Ron did a good job and got us to the playoffs a lot, and really when it comes down to it, it's the on the players to deliver and we didn't do that; so it's hard to have that happen. We let him down and it's too bad, but that's part of the business."
But winning the gold medal has put aside any bad feelings for now and Nabokov was happy to head into the offseason on a high.
"This has been amazing and means so much, so I'm so happy to go into the summer this way," he said. "You take this and build off it; but winning for your country is so special and I'm proud of what this team accomplished.
"Now, it's time to celebrate and then get some rest."