SAN JOSE, Calif. - Although Evgeni Nabokov normally deflects praise with the same relentless vigour he uses to keep pucks out of his net, even the San Jose Sharks' all-star goalie couldn't ignore his own brilliance in his latest remarkable win.
Joe Thornton scored a power-play goal 1:49 into overtime, and Nabokov earned his NHL-best 30th victory with 31 mostly spectacular saves in a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.
"Obviously, Nabby won this game," Thornton said. "For some reason, we didn't have it, but we won. Now we owe Nabby a good game."
After Marcel Goc scored an early goal for the Sharks, Nabokov kept his outclassed teammates in contention with one big save after another. He stopped a penalty shot and at least two other breakaway chances, and he stayed strong in a key 4-on-3 short-handed situation to the delirious cheers of San Jose's fans.
Nabokov detests talking about himself, continually redirecting comments about his play to the entire team's performance. But after such a remarkable outing, Nabokov allowed himself about 15 seconds of self-contemplation.
"That's why I'm there, to make the key saves," Nabokov said. "That's why I'm there, to basically do my job and keep the zeros on the board. I was feeling well. I don't know if I was in the zone. I don't like to use that word. You try to play every game like this, every period."
The Sharks' fortunes in this successful-yet-inconsistent season rest heavily on Thornton and Nabokov, who leads New Jersey's Martin Brodeur by two victories atop the league standings after clinching the fourth 30-win season of his career. Nabokov has started all but one of San Jose's 54 games, and his two backups have played a total of 105 minutes.
Nabokov allowed Jason Chimera's tying goal for the Blue Jackets in the third period on an indefensibly good pass from Michael Peca, but the Sharks finally awoke to provide the effort expected from the club with the NHL's fourth-best record.
"Our players knew what they weren't doing, but they didn't seem to have the ability to get out of the funk they were in," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "A lot of it had to do with Columbus. They were doing a great job on their forecheck and made it really difficult on our defence. We got thoroughly outplayed, but we found a way to get that extra point."
Captain Patrick Marleau won a key faceoff in overtime, and Sandis Ozolinsh got the puck to Thornton for a shot that apparently went under Marleau's stick and between the legs of Fredrik Norrena, who made 20 saves in San Jose's second victory in the first three games of a six-game homestand.
The Blue Jackets' win at Phoenix on Thursday night was their only victory in their last six outings. Columbus outshot San Jose 26-5 in the first two periods, but Nabokov was impenetrable - even stopping Rick Nash's penalty shot in the second period with a nifty poke-check when the Columbus star got too close.
"I think that's killing them," Chimera said of the Jackets' comically large shot advantage. "Nabby stood on his head. That's a good road game for us. It's a shame we couldn't get the win. Their big players stepped up, and Thornton found a way."
Chimera had an all-around bad night until his goal, with Nabokov denying him on a short-handed breakaway chance and Sharks defenseman Craig Rivet pounding him in a first-period fight.
Columbus finally evened it during 4-on-4 play with 12:47 to play when Chimera tipped home Peca's backhand pass during a rush.
"We did the things we needed to do to win," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We didn't finish some of our scoring opportunities. We had so many chances in the first two periods, you sometimes wonder if you're ever going to score. ... It doesn't feel like consolation. This was one that got away."
Jody Shelley, the enforcer traded from Columbus to San Jose last week, didn't fight with any of his former teammates - not even Jared Boll, the 21-year-old who essentially took his job - but still helped out on the Sharks' first goal. Goc, a healthy scratch in the Sharks' previous seven games, scored 3 minutes into the game when Shelley stripped the puck from a Columbus forward, creating a turnover that Goc turned into just his third goal of the season.
Notes: The Sharks changed backup goalies again Friday, sending Thomas Greiss back to Worcester (AHL) and recalling Dimitri Patzold, who might start Saturday night. Patzold relieved Nabokov in three games earlier this season, but went back down to Worcester for 10 games of work. ... Sharks D Kyle McLaren returned from a 10-game absence after undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery last month on his left knee. ... D Marc Methot returned to Columbus' lineup when the club scratched Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who had played in the last nine games.