"Nabokov with a circus save! It is one of the greatest saves you'll ever see!!"
Those were the words of San Jose Sharks play by play man Randy Hahn as he called a brilliant glove save by Nabokov a few seasons back in overtime of a game against the Nashville Predators.
The No. 1 net-minder for the Sharks has been the back bone of this team for the overwhelming majority of the past decade. While both Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala took playing time away from Nabokov during a couple different seasons, Nabokov was thought highly enough to be retained as the starter.
And it is safe to say that, love him or hate him, Nabokov is the key to playoff success once again in 2010. As the entire hockey world knows, goaltender is the most important position in the sport, almost as important as quarterback is in the NFL. Having a goalie at the top of his game is extremely beneficial come playoffs because a team can ride a hot goaltender all the way to a Stanley Cup.
San Jose did nearly just that back in 2003-'04 when Nabokov had what is still to this day his career year in net. Nabokov finished the regular season with a .921 save percentage and nine shutouts, both career highs.
Unlike recent seasons for both Nabokov and the rest of the Sharks, "Nabby" actually raised his game to a higher level.
In 17 games during the 2003-'04 playoffs, Nabokov posted a .935 save percentage with three shutouts. Better yet, despite only a 2-1 record in the final game of each series, he posted a combined save percentage of .949. And on the road Nabokov posted a .950 save percentage where he managed two of his three shutouts.
When the Sharks needed him most, Nabokov delivered. And his play in goal helped carry San Jose to their first and only semi-final series victory to this date. Game six of the Avalanche series which came in Colorado saw Nabokov stop 28 out of 29 shots and the 3-1 victory sent the Sharks off to their first ever Western Conference Final appearance.
Flash forward to the 2009-'10 season, and Nabokov is once again playing at the level that saw him play the best hockey of his career back in 2003-'04.
While Nabokov isn't nearly on pace to reach the nine shutouts he picked up six years ago as he has just two of them at the half way point, his save percentage is significantly higher at .926.
If Nabokov can continue his stellar play, if he can remain healthy and isn't overplayed by Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, Nabokov might just begin the playoffs playing the best hockey of his life.
He is currently on a streak where he has back-stopped the Sharks to an 8-1-3 mark in his past 12 games with a save percentage of .935. In his last eight games he has led the Sharks to 7-0-1 mark with a save percentage of .947. Talk about astonishing numbers by a goalie who consistently faces criticism for his team's failures.
Now some fans may argue that the Sharks offense deserves credit for the current winning streak and admittedly they deserve their fair share. However, despite the fact the Sharks scored 3.75 goals per contest in that eight game span, games in Chicago and home against Phoenix would not have been victories without Nabokov being absolutely dominant.
Nabokov stopped 76 out of 80 shots combined in those two games, holding Chicago and Phoenix to just two goals a piece while the Sharks managed just five goals on 50 shots in the two contests.
Without Nabokov, the Sharks would still be a top 10 team, but with him playing the way he has shown he can, he gives San Jose a chance to be the last team standing in June.
And that is what the Sharks are built for this season. A team much maligned for playoff disappointments has been tweaked to have everything put together for this season. Come next year there are no guarantees the same core group returns with numerous players including Nabokov in the final year of their contracts.
If San Jose is to finally break through and have extended playoff success, they are going to need Nabokov to elevate his game in the playoffs just like he did in 2003-'04.
Teams can have as many talented scorers as they want but offensive juggernauts don't always enjoy playoff success. As you'll hear every NHL analyst state, "you need goaltending come playoffs."
Granted Nabokov has experienced a vast amount of success throughout the years, he has also been prone to let up the weak back-breaking goal that can deflate his team.
However, his play as of late should give Sharks fans the confidence that they will have Stanley Cup quality goaltending come playoffs and those back-breaking goals will be no longer.
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