Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, 37, enjoying playoff chase with Islanders

Evgeni Nabokov defends the net during a game Evgeni Nabokov defends the net during a game against the Florida Panthers at Nassau Coliseum. (March 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Evgeni Nabokov stops pucks for a living and deflects questions about his age as a hobby. He knows the questions are coming, so the oldest Islander at 37 is fully and playfully prepared. When the inevitable was asked after Monday's practice at Nassau Coliseum, he tried to turn the age-old question on teammate Lubomir Visnovsky, who is four months shy of 37. They both had a hearty laugh.

Nabokov is too caught up in the playoff race to let age take center stage.

"Talking as a goalie, maybe it's easier than being a player at 37," he said. "But I think if you take care of your body and you try to stay in shape and you enjoy it."

Nabokov could be the key player down the stretch as the Islanders chase the playoffs. He's started 33 games, fourth among NHL goalies. That number might have been reduced if Rick DiPietro had been more effective before being demoted.

Young backup Kevin Poulin isn't likely to see much action until the team clinches a playoff berth -- or is eliminated.

If Nabokov wants or needs more rest, he isn't saying. "Nothing different from previous years. You just stay disciplined with yourself," he said. He's allowed a total of four goals in his last three starts.

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"He's played well," Jack Capuano said. "He's carried the load for us here for the most part. He's an experienced guy who's played a lot of hockey. He's been in this situation before."

Mark Streit added: "His play on the ice speaks for itself. He makes the key saves. He talks a lot on the ice and in the locker room as well. You can't replace guys like that. He's been in the league forever, was in the playoffs, did it all."

It's interesting that Nabokov has a pivotal role when it seemed he might not be here at all. The Islanders claimed him in 2011, only to have Nabokov refuse to report. "I said right from the beginning, the reason I didn't come here is not because I didn't want to play here," he said with a sigh. "It was that I wasn't ready to play for this team at that particular moment . . . The guys were almost already out of the playoffs at that time, so for me, it doesn't make sense."

Now he's firmly entrenched, though a new contract still must be negotiated. Despite his age, he fits into the Islanders' plans for the future.

"I don't know," he said about what might lie ahead. "One thing I learned through my career is only think about stuff I can control. As of right now, just going with having fun. We'll see."

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