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Pacific: Got a game, Nabokov is ready, willing and able

by Doug Ward
After employing a two-goalie system last season, the San Jose Sharks designated Evgeni Nabokov the team's No.1 goalie this year.  Nabokov has thrived in his new role, and is in the midst of a career year.
Last summer, San Jose GM Doug Wilson was faced with a decision. With two first-rate goaltenders on his roster in Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov, Wilson knew it was time to designate one of the two his team’s No. 1 goalie and unload the other.

On June 22, Wilson made his choice, sending Toskala to Toronto, along with forward Mark Bell, in exchange for three draft picks. Ever since, Nabokov has been firmly entrenched as the Sharks’ No. 1 in net.

How firmly?

Nabokov had started all of his team’s first 34 games this season and as of Dec. 21, he was leading the NHL in wins with 18. A year ago, the Sharks’ employed a two-goalie system with Nabokov playing in 50 games while Toskala appeared in 38.

With so much work, it would be difficult to project Nabokov’s season totals with any accuracy, but it’s safe to say he’s in the midst of a career year. In addition to leading the League in wins, he is second in goals-against average (1.99), and ranks fourth in shutouts (4).

If Nabokov were to continue at his current pace, appearing in all 82 games, he’d finish the regular season with a 53-17-12 record and a 1.99 goals against average.

That won’t happen. But if coach Ron Wilson were to call on Nabokov to tend to the Sharks’ goal in each of the team’s remaining games, he would have no problem with it.

“I’m preparing to play in all of them,” he said. Nabokov, who has played in at least 45 games since joining the Sharks on a fulltime basis in 2000-01, prefers a heavy workload. The iron man goaltender has been one of the reasons the Sharks have remained within two points of the Pacific Division lead.

“He’s playing great,” Wilson said.

Nabokov’s play has been so strong, in fact, that San Jose backup Dimitri Patzold has seen just 44 minutes of action while appearing in three games.

Toskala, meanwhile, has been workhorse for the Maple Leafs. Playing in front of the Leafs’ porous defense, however, he has not fared nearly as well as Nabokov. The Leafs are giving up 3.03 goals per game to rank 27th in the NHL, and Toskala has played in 28 of his team’s first 35 games, posting a 12-11-4 record, a 2.69 GAA, and .907 save percentage.

Wilson believes in selecting his goaltender on a game-by-game basis, rather than determining a rotation in advance, and so far, Nabokov has made it easy on his coach.

“There is no plan,” Wilson said. That means that as long as Nabokov answers the call, he’ll continue to get the call.

Early Christmas in Phoenix -- A six-game road trip to the East Coast could have spelled an early death for the Coyotes, but instead it brought an early Christmas. Phoenix won five of the six road contests, including four in a row to end the trip. When the Coyotes returned to the Arena, they did so with the League’s fourth best road record (11-8-0) and an overall mark of .500 (16-16-0). Their 32 points left them in 13th place in the Western Conference, just seven behind Anaheim for the final playoff berth with five games in hand.

As a reward for their road success, the Coyotes were to play four consecutive games at home. Unfortunately, Phoenix has the worst home record in the NHL, winning just five of their first 13 games in the Valley of the Sun.

The Coyotes hope their most recent road success will carry over.

“We’re playing really well right,” Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said.

The Coyotes, in fact, have been playing well since goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was claimed off waivers Nov. 17. In the first 16 games since Bryzgalov arrived, the Coyotes won 10 of 16. In his first 15 games with the Coyotes, Bryzgalov posted a 9-6 record, 2.55 goals against average, and .928 save percentage.

The former Duck has been particularly hot of late, going 3-0 with a 1.52 GAA and .950 save percentage in games against the Rangers, Philadelphia and San Jose.


Who’s hot -- Ed Jovanovski of the Coyotes had four assists in three games last week. … Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere posted a 0.48 goals-against average with a .982 save percentage in two outings last week. … Bobby Ryan of the Ducks had a goal in each of his first two games two games after being recalled Dec. 15.

Who’s not -- Anaheim’s Rob Niedermayer saw his scoreless streak reach 11 games after being kept of the score sheet in the Ducks 2-1 win over Colorado Wednesday. …The Stars’ Stephane Robidas was scoreless in 11 games as of Dec. 21. … Derek Armstrong of the Kings saw his personal scoreless streak reach five games. … Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera lost consecutive games against Colorado and Detroit last week while giving up 4.54 goals per contest and stopping just .878 percent of the shots he faced. … Los Angeles forward Mike Cammalleri had just two goals in 17 games.

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