In a shortened season filled with hot and cold streaks, there’s been one steadying force on the Islanders back end. In the last two games, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has backstopped the team to a 3-0 shutout win on March 24 against Florida and made every save during the third period of a 3-2 win March 26 at Washington.
The 37 year old netminder has provided veteran leadership for a team with a young defensive corps that has employed five blueliners under the age of 27, including three rookies. Head Coach Jack Capuano says Nabokov’s leadership and strong play have been paramount in building confidence among the team’s young defensemen.
“It’s real important to have a guy like him back there,” Capuano said of the 37-year-old goaltender. “Nabby to me is one of those guys who is almost an extension of our coaching staff. He thinks the game real well, especially on the opposition’s power play and that shows in our penalty kill meetings. He’s played a lot of hockey over the years and we’re not afraid to go to him. I know he’s played a lot for us too, but he’s a workhorse and we have faith in his ability.”
Evgeni Nabokov has started 28 of the Islanders’ 33 games, or 85%, this season. The only time a goalie has ever appeared in 80% of Islanders games in one season was in 2001-02, when Chris Osgood played 66 contests en route to a playoff berth.
With the condensed 48-game schedule this season, some may have expected Nabokov to split the goaltending duties to stay fresh. But as the season has worn on, the Islanders netminder has put the team on his back and seems to be getting stronger with each passing game. Since Feb. 14, he is 11-5-3, including two separate shutout streaks of more than 100 minutes.
The heavy workload is nothing new for the Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan native, who posted an NHL-high 46 wins and 77 games in 2007-08 with the San Jose Sharks.
“It doesn’t matter how often you play – I’ve always thought recovery was a big thing between games,” Nabokov said. “Maybe I try to rest or practice a little different from time to time, but I always make sure I’m rested enough and ready to play.”
Nabokov is tied for fifth in the NHL with 15 wins, and fourth in the league with three shutouts this season. His most recent clean sheet, a 26-save performance against Florida on March 24, gave him 55 for his car
Goalie - NYI
GAA: 2.80 | SVP: 0.902
eer, passing Hall-of-Famers Ed Giacomin and Bernie Parent for 19th place on the all-time shutout list. He passed Billy Smith
last season on the career wins list, and has climbed the ranks to 21st in 2012-13. The only goaltenders who have won more games than Nabokov’s 327 with a lower goals against average (2.42) are Martin Brodeur, Jacques Plante and Dominik Hasek.
Nabokov has kept the Islanders in a lot of tight games this season, including March 16 at Florida, when he made 12 third period saves with the game on the line in a 4-3 win. He came through again on March 26 to stop all seven Capitals shots in the final 20 minutes as the Islanders won 3-2. The pressure situations are what Nabokov thrives on, and he knows as well as anybody that the one barometer goalies are measured on is wins and losses.
“You’re not going to be able to win games all the time, but you’re trying to give your team the opportunity every single night to win,” Nabokov said. “As a goalie, basically the only thing you can do is catch the puck. Forwards and defensemen can do a lot of different things to be effective, but goalies are either catching the puck or not.”
The Islanders enter the final month of the season just two points out of eighth place in the East, so each game down the stretch carries added importance. How much Capuano and Co. rely on their workhorse remains to be seen, but the coaching staff has shown that they’re comfortable giving Nabokov the nod any night of the year.