UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Immediately after signing a one-year extension with the New York Islanders late last season, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov affirmed that he was pleased to be coming back and that his goal was to lead the team to the playoffs in 2012-13.
"I like what I see," Nabokov told the media after signing the extension on March 21, 2012. "Hopefully, we'll make the playoffs next year."
At the time, the Islanders owned the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference and were on their way to securing last place in the Atlantic Division for the fifth straight season. But barely 13 months later, the 37-year-old has been a crucial piece of a team that enters Tuesday's action holding seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
"You thought I was joking?" Nabokov told NHL.com when asked about his comments from a year ago. "That's what you play for. You play for the playoffs and to take it to the next level in the playoffs."
Nabokov is one of the few Islanders who can talk about the playoffs with any firsthand knowledge. In parts of 10 seasons with the San Jose Sharks, he won 293 regular-season games and 40 playoff contests. In contrast, 15 Islanders players -- more than half the active roster -- have never competed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so his experience has proven to be vital in a bounce-back season for the franchise.
But it's Nabokov's on-ice play that is getting the most attention right now.
"He's given us a chance. That's what you ask your goaltender -- to give you a chance," coach Jack Capuano said. "You ask him to give you a chance to win the game and he's done that."
Entering Tuesday's games against the Florida Panthers, Nabokov – the fourth-oldest goaltender in the NHL (only Martin Brodeur, Nikolai Khabibulin and Johan Hedberg are older) ranks among the top goaltenders in the League in wins, saves, shutouts and ice time. Not bad, considering the unique circumstances that brought Nabokov to New York.
After starting the 2010-11 season with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, Nabokov signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 20, 2011. Because he started the season playing abroad, Nabokov had to clear waivers before reporting to Detroit. When the injury-ravaged Islanders claimed him, Nabokov opted not to report to the team, which swiftly suspended him and later tolled his contract for the following season.
Nabokov later explained that he required more training before taking on the sizeable role the Islanders required of him at that time. On the verge of getting back to the postseason, he's done explaining the past.
"I don't want to go back and start all this. I just want to lay it down and not to worry about it," said Nabokov who is relishing the opportunity to lead the Islanders into the playoffs. "The playoffs are a different season. It's a different mentality. It's a sprint. We just have to concentrate on the game tomorrow and be ready for that game. You try to simplify everything and control what you can control at this moment right now."
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That wisdom is invaluable as the Islanders find themselves playing meaningful games in April for the first time in six years. But Nabokov, who helped lead the Sharks to the 2010 Western Conference Final the last time he appeared in the playoffs, is downplaying his role as old sage.
"I'm not a babysitter. Everybody is a grown man here. They know how to play hockey," Nabokov said. "They know what it takes to make the playoffs. The guys are doing a great job for themselves."
Nabokov's young teammates may not agree with their veteran goaltender's modesty regarding his place in the locker room. To a man, they laud his vocal leadership in the room. For a club with a large core of players aged 25 or younger, there's plenty of respect for the man who ranks 19th all-time in career wins.
"Everyone in this room knows that he knows what it takes [to win]," Islanders center Frans Nielsen said. "You have a goalie who loves this time of year. It's great to see the way he is before the games. He's been great for us."
Though he's just three wins behind Gump Worsley on the NHL's all-time list, it took years for Nabokov to enjoy the reputation he currently enjoys in the Islanders' locker room. Growing up, he was primarily known as the son of legendary Russian goaltender Victor Nabokov. It wasn't until he joined the Islanders that he finally stopped comparing himself to his father, who played almost two decades in the former Soviet Union.
By the time he arrived in North America in 1997 to play for the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American Hockey League, Evgeni Nabokov wasn't known for his father. Unable to speak much English, the ninth-round pick in 1994 wasn't known for much of anything. Afraid people might have trouble pronouncing his name, he often introduced himself as John. Occasionally, people asked him if he was related to famed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. He isn't, although people still ask.
Fifteen years later, Nabokov is the most accomplished player on a potential playoff team. And with no plans to retire, the free-agent-to-be is writing a new chapter in a career that has already had numerous twists and turns.
"He's been phenomenal for us. He really has been a calming influence. He says some good things in this room," star center John Tavares told NHL.com. "A lot of guys have a ton of respect for him. He gives a great presence in net. He's been our best player this year."