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Evgeni Nabokov, unlikely hero of the playoff contending Islanders

Greg Wyshynski
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They chanted on Long Island, loud and proud, as the New York Islanders closed out the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night:

“WE. WANT. PLAY-OFFS.”

With eight games left in this truncated season, the Islanders control their own destiny for the postseason. They’re in the seventh seed with 44 points in 40 games; the New York Rangers are two points back at 39 games, while the Winnipeg Jets (41 games, 42 points) and New Jersey Devils (39 games, 40 points) are in striking distance.

The 4-1 win over the Flyers was what we’ve come to expect from this Islanders team: Resilient, gritty and a dash of John Tavares heroism.

And, of course, Evgeni Nabokov winning a game.

He’s done that 19 times this season for the Islanders, against 11 losses and four overtime losses.

His stats are pedestrian – 2.59 GAA, .908 save percentage and three shutouts. But the backbone he’s provided this Islanders team is anything but ordinary.

The Islanders have made an unlikely journey into playoff seeding, but it pales in comparison to the unlikely journey of Nabokov to the Islanders.

Please recall in Jan. 2011 when the Islanders claimed Nabokov on waivers, after the Detroit Red Wings had signed him to a one-year deal following Nabokov’s departure from the KHL. He refused to report to the Islanders, but joined the Islanders for 2011-12 training camp after the team tolled his contract, saying:

"A lot of people speculated that I didn't want to go to the organization but that's totally not true," Nabokov told the newspaper.

"What made me make that decision is that I hadn't skated for a month and a half when they claimed me. They were out of the playoffs, but battling to get in and, as a goalie, I know the goalie position is important when fighting for position (in the standings). I didn't feel that I could help them to get to the playoffs. I needed three to four weeks to get ready and the season would've been over."

It was a bumpy transition, according to NYI Point Blank:

Nabokov came to camp this season doing and saying all the right things after a public spat that saw him not report and the Islanders playing right back, tolling the contract they claimed off waivers. Then there was that time he was traded by the media to Columbus for Fedor Tyutin (how long a stretch Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson would have had to play during the second half is an eye-opening alternate reality). Oh and he was also showcased in Boston in November but that didn’t go very well. But Nabokov kept his cool and paid his penance for non-reporting by serving his year in purgatory, which just happened to be located west of Eisenhower Park.

He started 42 games that season, and surprised some by inking another one-year deal with the Islanders for $2.75 million. At that time, he reiterated his stance on the Islanders, via Newsday:

“I like what I see over here. I like the direction this team is going. Now a lot of people said last season the reason I didn't come here is because it's a bad organization. That's not true. I didn't come because I didn't think I was ready. I came to training camp ready to go, and I think it's been good."

It was an odd courtship, but Nabokov and the Islanders have proven to be a successful marriage.

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If this were “Family Feud” and the question was “name the New York Islanders’ MVP this season,” you would say “John Tavares,” the little rectangle would flip and you’d decide whether your team wanted to pass or play after securing the No. 1 answer.

Tavares could win the Hart. He’s been that influential, that valuable to this Islanders team, which has gone 12-5-1 in games in which he’s scored a goal. He oozes confidence, steadies the ship and has been a primary reason why the Isles has even a sniff of the postseason.

But all of that applies to Nabokov as well, and in some ways he’s had the more remarkable season.

For example: Who is the Islanders’ current backup goalie?

Rick DiPietro? Nah, he’s in the AHL.

Al Montoya? Yeah, no longer an Islander.

Wait, who did you say? You realize that guy’s the general manager now, right?

No, Nabokov’s backup is Kevin Poulin, he of the 20 games of NHL experience and the 3.32 GAA this season. Nabokov is flying without a net, knowing that the only alternative, should he falter, is that there is no alternative. If the Islanders were going to be a playoff team, he’d have to get them there. And he has, thus far.

To the surprise of no one, Nabokov has started the vast majority of games: His 34 starts place him fifth in the NHL.

To the surprise of everyone except Marty Brodeur, he’s done this at 37 years old.

From Newsday, Nabokov and the Islanders addressed his workload:

If Nabokov wants or needs more rest, he isn't saying. "Nothing different from previous years. You just stay disciplined with yourself," he said. He's allowed a total of four goals in his last three starts.

"He's played well," Jack Capuano said. "He's carried the load for us here for the most part. He's an experienced guy who's played a lot of hockey. He's been in this situation before."

Mark Streit added: "His play on the ice speaks for itself. He makes the key saves. He talks a lot on the ice and in the locker room as well. You can't replace guys like that. He's been in the league forever, was in the playoffs, did it all."

That he has: 639 regular-season games played, all but 76 of them with the San Jose Sharks; 80 Stanley Cup Playoff games played, with a 2.29 GAA and a .913 save percentage. On an Islanders team that seriously lacks postseason experience, Nabokov is their Gandalf.

He’s also a winner. Not of the big prizes, mind you, having never back-stopped the Sharks to a conference title or a Stanley Cup – and eventually taking the fall for that lack of team success – but of games. His 331 wins place him third on the active leaderboard. Yes, “wins” are a nebulous stat that in no way inform us about the true effectiveness of an NHL netminder. But there are just guys who know how to make a big save to get them, and those who don’t.

In the regular season, at least, Nabokov comes up big. Always has.

They chanted “WE WANT PLAYOFFS” at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday night, and one couldn’t help but feel that we’re at the precipice of historic moment for the Islanders.

The young players have ripened. The team is on the verge of contention. The move to Brooklyn is approaching fast, and maybe even faster that anticipated. Generations of Islanders fans that have waited to witness an iota of the success their elders saw in the early 1980s were finally embracing their beginning of their moment.

And yet as the chants rang out to celebrate a new era for the Islanders, a relic stood in his goal crease. Evgeni Nabokov might not be there when the Islanders finish this journey, but he’s been as important as any player in confidently helping them take the first steps.

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