Starting San Jose Sharks goalie, Evgeni Nabokov, is not a fan of the limelight.
He makes himself accessible for locker room interviews, but tries to avoid being the focus of attention whenever he can.
That was a tough task for him on Thursday night in San Jose, however.
After months of trying, Nabby finally broke through against the division rival Dallas Stars with a strong, confident shutout performance, notching 27 saves and spurring the Sharks to a 3-0 victory.
The shutout marked a career milestone for Nabby, tying him with Chris Osgood at 24th all-time in the category with 50.
Nabby earned first star honors before a pumped home crowd in the first game back from a road trip, which saw the Sharks garner just 2 of 10 available points.
He was jovial in post-game interviews, admitting that he had wanted to get this milestone out of the way before the regular season ended.
People had been speculating when the multiple-time all-star goalie would reach this mark since before the regular season began, as Nabby entered 2009-2010 needing just three shutouts to reach the milestone.
For a goalie who once notched nine shutouts in a single season (2003-2004) and had no fewer than six in any of the last three seasons, it came as a shock to many that No. 50 took until Game 74 of the season to arrive.
In particular, Nabby was stuck on 49 for quite a while—more than four months in fact— having reached that mark on November 7, 2009 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
While he would never use it as an excuse, the wait for 50 certainly seemed to be weighing on his mind and affecting his play the longer it dragged out.
He played well through January, including a stretch of only allowing one goal per game in 8 of 10 games to start the month. However, as the Olympic break approached, his play began to slip.
Following a disappointing Olympic showing for him personally and Team Russia as a whole, Nabby returned to the Sharks and fielded performances ranging from spotty to terrible (though his defense gave him little help), consistently posting GAAs below .900.
Tuesday’s game in Minnesota saw a much more confident Nabokov stop 18 of 19 shots, but his 50th shutout eluded him once more as a puck beat him on a shot off a tough rebound with his team short-handed.
Nabby would not have to wait long for redemption. He was strong, confident and tall in goal Thursday against Dallas, stopping all 27 shots from a team which had scored four goals in 27 minutes against him in Dallas just nine days earlier.
The win also clinched the Sharks 2010 playoff berth (not that it was in doubt). The fact these events happened on the same night is an interesting coincidence.
Knowing he will no longer have to hear speculation or answer questions about his 50th shutout should give Nabby extra confidence moving forward into the playoffs.
A confident goalie is an effective goalie. Previous years have seen Nabby field less-than-stellar performances in playoff games, costing his team dearly at the worst possible times. With this monkey off his back, this could finally be the year that changes.
Nabby’s back to back strong efforts in helping the Sharks snap their worst swoon since 1997 have him trending up at the right time, which should bode very well for San Jose come April. But other signs also point to the Sharks being a tough draw for any opponent, despite their infamous track record.
Another key factor is the break-up of the top line of Thornton, Heatley and Marleau. This reshuffling was instrumental in breaking the slump and should have come a long time ago.
Breaking the team’s top three forwards up onto different lines redistributes the offensive punch through the entire Sharks lineup and keeps teams from focusing on shutting down one line.
Strong play by rookie Logan Couture and continued production by Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe (who were strong throughout the recent swoon as well) leave the Sharks with a much-improved, more balanced and overall more productive attack through all their lines.
The Sharks had an edge over most every team in the league in terms of third and fourth line match-ups throughout the season, but the recent reshuffling has magnified the advantage substantially. This will be key come the playoffs.
Finally, struggling captain Rob Blake has seemingly followed the trend of the rest of his teammates and turned his play around in the two games since the end of the swoon.
Blake logged four points over those two games (one goal, three assists) and was a proactive offensive force, crashing the net and camping in the goalies’ lines of sight on power plays, while maintaining vastly improved defensive positioning.
Strong play by the captain would be a huge boon to the Sharks in the playoffs.
Indeed what a difference a week makes. The Sharks have awoken to look like the threat their roster suggests they should be. Despite momentarily falling to the four seed after losing the Pacific Division lead to the Coyotes during their swoon, they have climbed tenuously back into the top spot in the Western Conference, becoming the first Western Conference team to reach 100 points.
The Western Conference suddenly seems the Sharks’ for the taking once again.
We can only hope that proves to be just the first step.