SAN JOSE, Calif. - Thomas Greiss and Dimitri Patzold are locked in perhaps the tightest competitions in the Sharks' training camp, yet neither goalie is about to break up a friendship over a seat on the San Jose bench.
"We're not fighting. We're buddies," Patzold said with a grin. "You've got to challenge the other players, not your teammates."
The Sharks must choose a backup for longtime starter Evgeni Nabokov this month after trading Vesa Toskala, who shared the starting job with Nabokov over the last three seasons, to Toronto during the summer.
Greiss, a 21-year-old German, won 26 games for the Sharks' top affiliate in Worcester, Mass., last year while sharing a room and daily practice time with Patzold, a 24-year-old Kazakh with more experience - including a callup to San Jose - but lesser statistics.
Nabokov is on top of his game after leading San Jose to the second round of the playoffs, but he's excited to see who emerges from the Sharks' seemingly endless pipeline of netminding talent - and he won't even concede that he has the starting job secured.
He recalls his own breakthrough in 2000, when Steve Shields' broken ankle thrust Nabokov into a job he has relinquished only briefly in seven years.
"To me, there's always a competition, every day," Nabokov said. "That's the way I've been since Day One here. In my mind, I'm not going to change a thing. I'm competing with those guys for the same job."
Nabokov has been working with Greiss and Patzold for several off-seasons, and he respects both players' abilities - perhaps a little too much, according to the understudies.
"I think he's using it to fire him up," said Patzold, who hails from Nabokov's hometown of Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. "He always likes the competition. If you have any questions, he will give you some tips. ... (The Sharks) are really patient with the goalies. They don't rush you. They give you time to develop, and as soon as we think we are ready, they give you the chance."
Greiss got off to a stronger start in the pre-season, stopping 19 shots in a 1-0 victory at Anaheim on Wednesday night. One night earlier, Patzold wasn't terribly sharp in a 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
But pre-season results don't mean much to Sharks coach Ron Wilson, who will anoint his next backup goalie based on his entire body of work. Nabokov will play three pre-season games, leaving two full games apiece for the youngsters.
"We're not going to build our team based on one game," Wilson said. "You factor in lots of things, (from) how they've played to who's ready emotionally as well as physically."
The winner of this derby probably won't play much this season behind Nabokov, who ranked sixth in the NHL with a 2.29 goals-against average and tied for second with seven shutouts. The competition loser will play regularly in Worcester, which could help him in the long run.
Patzold and Greiss know that earning a teal jersey usually leads to bigger things. Nabokov, Toskala, Miikka Kiprusoff and Johan Hedberg all have established themselves as NHL goalies in the last six seasons - a remarkable development record for the Sharks and Warren Strelow, their late goaltending coach.
"I think it's a good practice experience here," Patzold said. "They give you a good challenge in practice, so you get that every day. But if you're not playing too long, then maybe it's time to play somewhere."