After stumbling out of the gate to the tune of a 3.68 GAA and .858 save percentage through his first four games, Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is turning his fortunes around—in a hurry.
In his last two games, Nabokov has lowered his GAA by a full goal to 2.68 and raised his save percentage by 69 points to .907. In doing so, the two-time All-Star has essentially stolen his team three out of a possible four points.
On Saturday against Minnesota, Nabokov kept the Sharks in the game by coming up huge on the penalty kill, stifling the Wild on a 5-on-3 for nearly 1:13 early in the second period.
Despite allowing former Shark Owen Nolan to increase Minnesota's lead to 2-0 with a power-play marker at the 9:03 mark, Nabokov's performance while down a man kept Minnesota from breaking the game wide open, as the Sharks committed five penalties in the first 12 minutes of the middle period.
Keeping the score close enabled the Sharks' offense to get its game going, and led by Patrick Marleau's two-goal, three-point night, San Jose was able to come away with a 4-2 victory.
And although the former captain was the center of attention after the win, Nabokov's play was what enabled the Sharks to snatch the two points.
If it weren't for Nabokov's outstanding performance in the first 30 to 35 minutes of Saturday's contest, the Wild could have easily been up four or five to zero. And at that point, any attempt at a comeback would have been essentially out of reach.
Furthermore, after the Sharks' offense exploded by tallying four unanswered goals in the span of 8:55, Nabokov was able to continue to shut down the Wild and keep them off the score sheet in the final period.
That was no easy task, as Minnesota put up 14 shots to the Sharks' seven in the third, but Nabokov was up to the challenge. For the game, Minnesota managed to get just two pucks behind Nabokov on 40 shots.
But not only did Nabokov play the largest role in the Sharks' victory on Saturday, he was also the best Shark on the ice in Monday's shoot-out loss against Phoenix. In fact, he was the only Shark who showed up to play.
Despite the loss, the Sharks' No. 1 net-minder was credited with his first shut-out of the season as he blanked the Coyotes for 65 minutes. Unfortunately for San Jose, Ilya Bryzgalov turned away every single shot he faced, as well. But Nabokov was clearly the busiest goalie of the night, turning away all 30 shots he faced during regulation and overtime compared to just 26 for Bryzgalov.
To be fair, one might assume that a difference of just four shots isn't much of a gap. But because the Sharks are a team that consistently puts up a high total of shots and typically allows 25 or less, it is clear that Nabokov was peppered more than usual and Bryzgalov benefited from solid defense in front of him.
Moreover, it was incredibly evident during the game that the majority of quality scoring chances were created by the Coyotes, who benefited from some unfortunate defensive mishaps on the part of San Jose.
However, both times when Sharks' defenders were incredibly out of position, Nabokov was up to the task.
The first incident came when Marc-Edouard Vlasic lost an edge in his own zone and gave up the puck to the oncoming Phoenix fore-check, but Nabokov was able to shut the door on a blistering slap shot from the top of the circle.
The second came in overtime when Rob Blake was out of position. San Jose's captain attempted to intercept a cross-ice pass but missed, and the carom off the boards allowed Coyote forward Robert Lang to walk in and snap off a hard wrister from the hash mark. Fortunately for the Sharks, Nabokov was able to turn the shot aside.
With Nabokov stepping up his game on the home stand, the Sharks were able to come away with five out of a possible six points in the three games despite playing stellar team hockey (quality play on both ends of the ice) for just 50 minutes out of the 185 minutes played.
Granted the final outcome of the Phoenix game isn't what the Sharks are looking for; the ability of Nabokov to keep them in a game when they weren't firing on all cylinders was huge. Especially come playoff time, performances like Nabokov gave on this Monday are going to be incredibly important.
Now will Nabokov always have to play this well in order for the Sharks to win?
No, absolutely not. With the offensive talent the Sharks put out on the ice game in and game out, the Sharks aren't going to need Nabokov to be this stellar every game.
However, during the postseason the Sharks are going to have to find different ways to win. They cannot rely on their top-line to score three or more goals every game because during the playoffs teams will be game-planning to stop the Thornton-Heatley combination.
When that happens, when Heatley and Thornton have little room to maneuver and players like Marleau and Dan Boyle are having off-nights, the Sharks are still going to need to find a way to win.
If Nabokov can continue to play the way he did the last two games into the postseason, the Sharks will have found another way to win.
And heck, there are no shoot-outs in the playoffs and the way Nabokov was dominating on Monday, the Sharks probably would have found a way to beat Bryzgalov sooner or later if overtime had been continuous.
But in order for Nabokov to play this well come playoffs, the Sharks are going to have to make sure they keep him healthy and fresh.
Look for Nabokov's backup, Thomas Greiss, to make his first start of the year two games from now on Saturday in New York against the Islanders.
I mean, let's face it: Thursday's game is against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. The Sharks would be insane to sit a red-hot Nabokov against one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
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