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Nabokov wins All-Star duel against Kovalchuk

by Brian Compton /

Ilya Kovalchuk was unable to play the hero to his hometown crowd due to the stellar play of Evgeni Nabokov in the second period.
ATLANTA – Eric Staal won the Most Valuable Player Award at Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game at Philips Arena; but you could also make a strong case for several other players, including San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.

The workhorse put on a show late in the second period of the Eastern Conference’s 8-7 victory, as he denied Ilya Kovalchuk – his fellow Russian – a chance to celebrate a goal in front of his home crowd on not one, but two occasions.

Kovalchuk’s first chance came with just more than a minute remaining in the period, when the sniper fired a wrist shot from the slot that seemed destined to go into the top corner. But Nabokov – who started 43 consecutive games for the Sharks to start this season – made a ridiculous glove save to keep the Western Conference within two goals, at 5-3. Kovalchuk laid flat on his back in disbelief before getting up to high-five and hug Nabokov.

“You can call it a wacky save because the whole top shelf was open, and I just tried to swing my glove,” Nabokov said. “It just happened to go in the glove. That first one, I’m sure usually in the games he scores from there.”

Nabokov was asked what Kovalchuk said to him as the two embraced, much to the delight of the capacity crowd.

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“I think he said, ‘Great save.’ But I think he wants to score,” Nabokov joked.

“He’s Russian and he’s good,” said Kovalchuk, who ranks second in the NHL with 37 goals this season. “It’s hard to beat those small guys. I’ll have to go work on my shot.”

Kovalchuk had another golden opportunity to score in front of his home fans in the final moments of the second, as he skated in on a breakaway. Once again, though, Nabokov was up to the challenge, as the 32-year-old netminder made a sliding pad save. Kovalchuk responded by slamming his stick on the ice before steaming all the way to the dressing room for the intermission.

“He made some great saves,” Kovalchuk said. “I wanted to score badly.”

Even John Paddock, the Ottawa coach that ran the East’s bench, understood the possibilities inherent in the hometown hero netting a goal before his fans.

“He made some big saves on Kovy there, three or four of them,” Paddock said. “It would have been nice to see him score in this rink, obviously.”

What made Nabokov’s performance even more impressive was the fact he entered the game cold. Chris Osgood started for the Western Conference before giving way to Nabokov at the start of the second. Manny Legace played the third period.

“No … are you kidding me?” Nabokov said when asked if he felt good right from the get-go. “We didn’t have much warm-up. I don’t think I faced one shot. I just tried not to get hurt. I tried to stretch in the first intermission.”

In the end, Nabokov finished the second period 8-for-8, becoming the first goalie since Nikolai Khabibulin to go an entire period at an All-Star Game without allowing a goal. But the Sharks’ goalie shrugged off thoughts of being named the game’s MVP.

“It never even crossed my mind,” Nabokov said. “It’s one period, where the guys are playing three periods.”

Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer – who scored just a few minutes before the Nabokov-Kovalchuk battle – quickly pointed out that the All-Star Game is the only time you’ll see a goalie and shooter hug in the middle of a period.

“Pretty fun to watch,” Niedermayer said. “That’s a neat thing. It’s different, but to show respect like that for a great save … the guy thought he had him beat. It’s neat to see that.”

Certainly, Nabokov won’t be hugging any more opponents this season. The Sharks, who are currently tied with the Dallas Stars for the Pacific Division lead, visit Edmonton on Tuesday and Calgary the following night.

“Let’s get back to reality now,” Nabokov said. “Tomorrow we’re flying to Edmonton, and the race is back. It’s no time to relax and it’s no time to think about one save. It’s back to work. It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”

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