NEW YORK -- Some may have thought it was too much to ask New York Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to make his first start in nearly a month in the freezing conditions Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.
Nabokov and the Islanders may have come up short in a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, but the veteran goalie was on top of his game despite making his first start in more than three weeks.
"You never really know until you're there and you see that great atmosphere," said Nabokov, who made 32 saves. "I love it; I love every second of it. The atmosphere was great. Obviously, the building's a little bit more louder."
It didn't take long for the Rangers to test Nabokov, who hadn't started since Jan. 6, when he sustained a lower-body injury in a game against the Dallas Stars. Brad Richards was handed a quality scoring chance midway through the first period after a giveaway by Isles captain John Tavares. But Nabokov denied Richards' slap shot to keep the game scoreless.
"He played great," Tavares said. "I think for all of us, it's disappointing we lost. We really wanted this one, not just the setting, but we need it in the standings and how bad we need points, especially against division teams. It would have been nice, obviously, to get the win."
The Islanders took a 1-0 lead when rookie center Brock Nelson beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist from the right circle at 18:33 of the second period, but they failed to take the lead into the intermission when Benoit Pouliot was left alone in front to fire Derick Brassard's rebound past Nabokov 40 seconds later.
Nabokov certainly didn't allow the goal to bother him. He made two big stops on Derek Stepan and Rick Nash early in the third period, but Daniel Carcillo finished off a 4-on-2 after a breakdown by the Islanders in the neutral zone. Nabokov didn't feel like going into much detail when asked about the goal after the game.
"It was a rush, the guy passed it and the other guy shot it," Nabokov said. "The other guy went for the rebound. I went side to side and couldn't quite control the rebound."
Nabokov didn't get much help from his offense the rest of the way. The Islanders were outshot 14-6 in the third period and finished 0-for-4 on the power play. But Nabokov wasn't about to point fingers.
"Our power play is always good. You can't expect them to score two or three every game," Nabokov said. "They were doing the right things and sometimes the puck doesn't go in the net. But I thought they were doing a good job."
The Islanders tried to find the tying goal in the final minute of regulation, when Nabokov was on the bench for an extra attacker. Kyle Okposo had a chance with eight seconds to go, but he fired wide after a passout from Tavares. Indeed, on this frigid night, Nabokov deserved a better fate.
"They had some pretty good opportunities, especially in the second, they had a couple of point-blank [chances]," Isles defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "He made some huge saves. We needed that, but unfortunately we couldn't give him too much support."
If there was a positive to take away from the loss, it had to be encouraging for Islanders coach Jack Capuano and his staff to see their No. 1 goaltender put forth such a performance in his first start in 23 days. Nabokov will likely get another start Friday, when the two teams play again at Madison Square Garden. The Islanders have been victorious in their past two trips to MSG.
"We had full confidence as we talked earlier today that he was healthy, he was 100 percent," Capuano said. "He made a couple big saves when he was called upon. Nash had a couple chances there, and I thought he came up big for us. He felt good after the game and that was a positive sign for us."
"The sun gets up [tomorrow] and we've got to get back to work," Nabokov said.