RALEIGH, N.C. - The last stretch of the Islanders' season isn't just for evaluating the young players who have been rotating through the lineup.
Evgeni Nabokov, for example, isn't signed for next season. He's had two injuries, including a groin problem that cost him a month and left the Isles hanging during their ugly November and December.
But he showed on Sunday a little bit of why the Islanders might be interested in a fourth season employing the 38-year-old in a backup role next season.
Most obvious were the 41 saves in a 2-0 win over the Blue Jackets, including 33 in the final two periods. Nabokov has lamented not making the key save at key times. His .912 even-strength save percentage ranks ahead of only the Devils' Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur among NHL goaltenders who start a majority of their team's games.
"I thought we were a little better in our zone," Nabokov said of his teammates, who packed the slot and were more alert in clearing rebounds than they have been in most of their games this season.
There also is his demeanor. He's serious during games -- any fan at the Coliseum wondering who's screaming "Out! Out!" when the puck is in the Islanders' zone need only look to the crease -- and less than serious afterward. When asked on the ice by MSG Network if he ever envisioned 57 career shutouts, Nabokov deadpanned, "I'm retiring now?"
Nabokov inked a one-year extension toward the end of the 2011-12 season, his first with the Islanders. After helping the team to the playoffs, he and the Islanders could not agree until the opening minutes of free agency in July. Once the goaltender market dried up, the two sides ran back to one another.
Nothing has been seriously discussed as of yet, according to people close to Nabokov, but it's still early.
After watching both of his young backups, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, fail to impress this season, Garth Snow will be searching for a starter on the trade or free-agent market this summer. Not having a capable backup has hurt as much as not having a solid No. 1 during the last seven seasons, so having someone the players are comfortable with on the bench might be seen as a positive.
"I feel like I can still do it," Nabokov said. "[NHL defenseman] Rob Blake told me, 'When it's time, you'll know.' I don't know yet."