A common theme every spring when the NHL playoffs come around is hot goaltending. Most years the squad that lifts the Stanley Cup in June had a goaltender who stole more than a few games during a two-month span. For Evgeni Nabokov and the Islanders, that hopeful run begins Wednesday at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The second-year Islander has more playoff experience than any other member of the team. While with the San Jose Sharks from 2000-10, Nabokov appeared in 80 playoff games. Although the Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan native has never played in the Stanley Cup Finals, he has shown what it takes for a goaltender to bring his team on an extended playoff run. Nabokov has played 11 or more playoff games five times in his career, including two trips to the Conference Finals.
One of those Conference Finals appearances was in 2004, possibly Nabokov’s best postseason to date. Although Nabokov’s Sharks fell to Calgary in six games, Nabokov’s 1.71 GAA and .935 SV% led all goaltenders that played in 10 or more games that postseason.
Islanders Captain Mark Streit knows how instrumental Nabokov has been to the team’s success this season. The netminder posted 23 wins during the regular season, one shy of the league lead, and will be essential to the squad’s hopes of a deep playoff run.
“Certainly, Nabby is a big part of our team,” Streit said. “He played unbelievably strong this year and he’s going to play the same way in the playoffs.”
But goaltending success is a product of more than just the guy between the pipes. All five skaters play a key role in keeping the puck out of the net.
“He makes the key saves for us and we’ve got to make sure to play well in front of him,” Streit said. “We have to box out and take care of the rebounds to help him out.”
Following the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals each season, the Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded to the player who is most valuable for his team throughout the entire postseason. The last two winners have been goalies, including 2012 recipient Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, whose 1.40 GAA and .946 SV% in 20 games earned him the prestigious honor.
Much like the Islanders this season, Quick’s Kings were the No. 8 seed and faced a powerhouse team in the first round. The Kings beat Vancouver in five games, holding the Canucks to two or fewer goals in each of their four wins.
Islanders forward Matt Moulson is Quick’s brother-in-law. Moulson had a vested interest in the Kings run to the Stanley Cup and believes Nabokov can take control like Quick did.
“I think any championship team you need your goalie to play well,” Moulson said. “We’ve relied on him a lot during the regular season and I’m sure it will be no different in the playoffs. He’s been there every step of the way for us and we wouldn’t be in a playoff spot if he wasn’t back there backstopping us.”
It’s not just on the ice that the Islanders can look to Nabokov for help. Head Coach Jack Capuano maintains that Nabokov’s presence in the locker room will provide a boost to the fairly inexperienced squad in the playoffs.
“I think he’s an extension of the coaching staff. He’s the guy that can settle the room down,” Capuano said. “Over the last couple of days we’ve had some real good meetings with our hockey club and he’s been really vocal about his experience.”
Of course, to have any sort of shot at winning the Stanley Cup, it needs to start in the first round. Nabokov and the Islanders begin their quest for the team’s fifth Stanley Cup at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Pittsburgh.