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Crowd in goal has Lightning thinking big

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Thirty-nine-year-old Evgeni Nabokov has played nearly 700 games over 13 NHL seasons, the first 10 with the San Jose Sharks and most recently with the New York Islanders.

On the opening day of free agency this offseason, Nabokov signed a one-year deal with the Lightning to back up starting goaltender Ben Bishop and help mentor a pair of highly-touted prospects, Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy. During his first few days skating with the Lightning during informal workouts at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, the veteran netminder said the organizational depth at his position is maybe the best he’s seen in his career.

“I think the talent is tremendous,” Nabokov said. “The only time I remember that I can compare that to was in San Jose when we had (Vesa) Toskala, (Miikka) Kiprusoff, (Johan) Hedberg and myself…But, now it’s a new generation, and everybody’s bigger and stronger.”

The Lightning’s depth in goal starts with Bishop, who, after bouncing between the NHL and the AHL for five seasons, found a home in Tampa Bay and emerged as one of the league’s best by posting a 2.23 goals against average and 37 victories last season, fourth best in the NHL and a Lightning franchise record.

Bishop missed the playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens because of an elbow injury sustained a week prior to the postseason. The Vezina Trophy finalist is hoping to remain on the ice this season for a deep Lightning playoff run, but even if bad luck should strike again, the talent behind Bishop is enough to keep the Bolts rolling.

“I think (the depth) is a good thing. You never know what can happen throughout the year,” Bishop said. “We have two really good young guys. (Kristers Gudlevskis) made big strides last year, and Vasilevskiy, coming in this year, it’ll be an adjustment period coming from the big ice to the North American style.”

Nabokov played in 40 games for the Islanders last season, winning 15 games and recording four shutouts.

“To play with Nabokov is a privilege for me,” Bishop said. “The guy’s played almost 700 games in the league, so I’m looking forward to learning from him and watching him play.”

Gudlevskis, a fifth-round selection by the Lightning in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, made his NHL debut in the regular season finale after Bishop’s injury and made 36 saves to pick up the win. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Gudlevskis, 22, nearly engineered an upset over Team Canada after stopping 55 of 57 shots in a 2-1 loss.

Vasilevskiy, the Lightning’s first-round draft pick (19th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, was named the Kontinental Hockey League rookie of the year last season and helped Russia win a goal medal at the 2014 IIHF World Championship. The 20-year-old Vasilevskiy, the youngest goaltender in the tournament, led all goalies in save percentage and shutouts.

“The sky is the limit for him,” Nabokov said. “He just needs to get comfortable, and he’s going to be a good goaltender hopefully for a long time.”

With the amount of talent at the position, the Lightning look to be stacked at goaltender for a long time as well.

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