As interesting as it should be to see how so many young Islanders players perform in their first Stanley Cup playoff games, the true key to the team's first postseason series in six years quite likely is the 37-year-old who has been in so many playoffs that he can't quite place his debut.
"I don't remember past 25 years," Evgeni Nabokov, the goalie, said.
He was kidding. Nabokov is not so venerable as to be suffering memory lapses. And it has not been 25 years since his first playoff game. Or maybe he meant that his recollection doesn't go farther back than his 25th birthday. In either case, he has 80 games of NHL playoff experience, and the Islanders see that as one of their finest assets as they enter Game 1 in Pittsburgh tonight.
"With age and experience comes a lot of wisdom. I'm sure he thinks so," teammate Matt Moulson said, with a grin. "He's been through a lot, been through probably every different situation. He's very vocal during games and during practices. He leads us not only with his play but also with his words."
Stanley Cup history suggests that if a team is going to have one player with a long background, it is best that it be the goalie. No matter what the disparity in talent levels might be, a hot goalie can be a tremendous equalizer. Glenn Healy, then 30, proved that for the Islanders when his goaltending led them past the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Penguins in the second round of the 1993 playoffs.
Nabokov's experience both steadied and carried the Islanders down the stretch, leading them to their first playoff series since 2007. "His composure and calmness really set a great example for us," said John Tavares, who emerged as a superstar, yet still has zero playoff games under his belt. The goalie is the one who knows how it goes from here.
"Just come out and play our game," Nabokov said. "No, I don't think you have to do anything special. It is the same game. It is a little bit more intense, it is a little bit more physical, but you can't overthink it. You still have to do what you do, like we've played in the last three weeks. Stay with the system, [be] responsible defensively and play tough."
If he sees a teammate falling short of that Wednesday, or at any time in the series, the teammate will hear it, possibly in a way that will make the other guy laugh. "He's obviously never afraid to say what needs to be said, but he's not walking up to every guy in the room and forcing his experience down your throat," defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "It's part of natural leadership, that you have that knack of knowing when to say something and when to just shut up and go do it. He has definitely done that for us this year."
Nabokov is arguably the biggest reason the difference between the Penguins, seeded first in the East, and the eighth-seeded Islanders is not as great as some observers might think.
"I've been on the other side of the thing. I remember we were the No. 1 seed against Anaheim and they beat us, 4-2," the former Dynamo Moscow star goalie said, recalling his 2009 season with the San Jose Sharks. "It sounds maybe funny, but it's a playoff. Anything can happen."
For the record, he made his playoff debut on April 23, 2000, a year before he was officially a rookie (and became the 2001 Calder Trophy winner). Nabokov entered in the third period of a Sharks' loss to the Blues, faced 10 shots and stopped all of them.