Evgeni Nabokov is a cut-up -- and a voice of reason
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When Garth Snow decided to quickly pull the trigger on a one-year contract for Evgeni Nabokov a few seconds after the start of free agency on July 5, Snow and the Islanders chose the goaltender they knew rather than one they didn't know.
Of course, Nabokov is 38, so the Islanders can't be completely sure of what they're getting on the ice. Off the ice, Nabokov is as consistent as ever: Locker-room cut-up most of the time, but with bursts of wisdom thrown in to remind his young teammates that Nabokov has been around and seen plenty.
Nabokov carried the load in goal last season, turning up his game over the second half of the shortened 48-game season to help the Islanders to the playoffs. Once there, Nabokov was not as good as he'd been, surrendering 24 goals in six games to the Penguins -- he was pulled early in two of them.
While the bulk of his teammates readily recall their first postseason experience and freely talk about how close they came to upending favored Pittsburgh, Nabokov hasn't dwelled on his less-than-stellar playoff trip last spring.
"With me, 2-3 weeks and it's out of the window. We have to move on," Nabokov said. "We can't continue to think about what happened last year. Last year is last year; it was a 48-game season, was totally different. That's in the past. Who cares? I don't care."
With Mark Streit gone to the Flyers, Nabokov is the only vocal older Islander remaining. It's rare for a goaltender to have such a locker-room influence, but Nabokov's personality has already paid dividends.
In Montreal on Feb. 21, the Isles were scuffling at 6-9-1 and fell into a quick 2-0 hole. During a TV timeout, Nabokov skated the length of the Isles bench, mask and gloves off, giving an animated talk to his sullen teammates. The Isles rallied to win that game on Thomas Hickey's overtime goal, a game plenty of Islanders pointed to as a turning point last season.
"We can rely on him," coach Jack Capuano said. "The one thing about Nabby, I knew he wanted to come back. Obviously it's a business, that was between him, his agent and Garth, but we're happy to have him back. The guys like him. When he's on his game, he's tough to beat."
Nabokov's numbers have been remarkably consistent in his two seasons with the Isles -- his goals-against average was 2.55 in 2011-12 and 2.50 last season, and a more precise metric, even-strength save percentage, was also nearly the same (.917 in 2011-12, .916 last season). Despite his age, he has never played fewer than 41 games in a season, which he did last year, when that was the equivalent of 70 games in a full season.
"In order to play a lot, you have to play good," Nabokov said. "That's first and foremost. If you play well, the coach will call your name. If you don't, then things are going to change. My No. 1 priority is to be consistent and give the guys a chance. I never sit and think, Oh, I want to play 55, 60, 70 games -- it's not my call, it's [Capuano's] call and his decision will be based on how I play."
And Nabokov will keep dispensing his wisdom, which for now is a reminder to his teammates that it's time to put last season to bed.
"We can't be thinking about the playoffs right now. It's our goal, but I think it's wrong," he said. "We can't talk about playoffs now -- this year's playoffs, last year, we need to forget about this. If we're going to think about Pittsburgh Penguins playoff in October . . . We're not going to make it far."