SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -If the San Jose Sharks stick to their plan, Evgeni Nabokov will be sitting on the bench Thursday night in Los Angeles, watching a chance at history skate past him.
After playing in 75 of the Sharks' first 80 games, Nabokov is scheduled to rest when the Sharks visit the Kings. San Jose has clinched the Pacific Division title and home ice in the first two playoff rounds, and the Sharks' workhorse goalie deserves a break more than anybody in the NHL.
Trouble is, Nabokov is just two victories shy of tying the single-season league record of 48 wins, set last year by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Nabokov's 5-2 victory over the Kings on Tuesday night was his 46th, the fourth-most in NHL history.
Nabokov would love to play both of the Sharks' final games, but not just for a record. Ever since he took charge of the Sharks' net during his Calder Trophy-winning rookie year in 2000-01, this otherwise unflappable goalie has seethed just a bit whenever he had to sit out any game at any point in any season.
"I would prefer to have (both starts), yes, but we've got to think about the playoffs," Nabokov said in his fluent English which includes inflections from both Russia and Kentucky, where he met his wife in the minors.
"I don't think about records. Maybe when I retire. I'm going to lie if I tell you I don't care, but I'm trying to go out and win every game and play well. That's my goal. If it will happen, I'll be really happy. If it's not going to happen, our goal is to get ready for the playoffs."
Nobody has to remind Ron Wilson that his goalie is close to history. The San Jose coach is among the NHL's most stat-savvy suits, and he has counted every save in Nabokov's remarkable season while hoping he'll win the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.
Nabokov has played 4,482 minutes, the league's most entering Wednesday's games, and he's already certain to finish with the NHL's most victories. He's fourth in goals-against average (2.14), third in shutouts (6) and seventh in save percentage (.910).
"I think he's going to win the Vezina," Wilson said of the trophy won by Brodeur in three of the last four seasons. "I think they'd be crazy not to give it to him."
But Wilson is focused on the playoffs, where the Sharks have been eliminated in the second round in two straight seasons. He wants Nabokov in top form, and he also wants to give a last bit of work to Brian Boucher, a late-season pickup who's been outstanding as Nabokov's backup.
"You think about that, but I don't think it's that important," Wilson said. "I could say that Bouche plays both games, but then Nabby would have a long layoff, and if I play Nabby in both games looking for a record, that always comes back to haunt you, because Bouche doesn't get to play for a long time, and that wouldn't be fair to him going into the playoffs."
The Sharks knew Nabokov loved intense work when they traded Vesa Toskala to Toronto last summer, breaking up a platoon that didn't suit either goalie. San Jose has stuck with Nabokov for eight years, through two general managers, two coaches and dozens of teammates in front of him - and he has rewarded that faith with the best season of his career.
"To be honest, I don't even notice that I've played so much," Nabokov said. "Physically, I feel fine. It's amazing when you're winning. Everything seems better."
Defenseman Brian Campbell, who joined San Jose five weeks ago, sees Nabokov's versatility as his greatest asset. When Campbell first shot at his new goalie in practice, he was impressed by Nabokov's fluid switch between a conventional style and a butterfly approach depending on the circumstances - a tactic stressed by Warren Strelow, the Sharks' longtime goaltending coach and Nabokov's mentor, who died last spring.
"You don't get to the elite level just by showing up for practice," Campbell said. "He's in the head of shooters, (instead of) the shooters in his head. He plays different styles, a lot like Brodeur, and Nabby's trying to think what the shooter's thinking and where the shooter's shooting. You never know what he's going to do."