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Nabokov brilliant in Islanders' 3-0 shutout over Panthers

The SportsXchange

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- As a soft-spoken goaltender who is the oldest player on a young team, Evgeni Nabokov is an unlikely candidate to serve as the leader of the New York Islanders. But he proved once again Sunday night he is more than up to the challenge.

Less than 48 hours after declaring he had to perform better during the Islanders' playoff push, Nabokov made 26 saves and authored his 55th career shutout in lifting the Islanders past the Florida Panthers, 3-0, in front of 14,512 fans at Nassau Coliseum.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Islanders (14-15-3) and once again vaulted them back into the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders are one point behind the Rangers and Hurricanes, pending the Rangers' outcome tonight.

Nabokov was critical of his performance Friday night -- when he gave up the tie-breaking goal less than two minutes into the third period of the Islanders' 4-2 loss to the Penguins -- and said he had to begin limiting opposing teams to one or two goals.

Of course, none will suffice, as well. But Nabokov, displaying the stoic approach of a 37-year-old with 632 NHL games under his belt, wasn't looking for kudos on Sunday.

"Satisfaction only goes for one night, right?" he said with a laugh. "Now it's back to work and do the same thing again, which is play strong defensively. I think that's how we have to take it right now. We have to play those 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 games and see what it's going to give us."

The final score is not indicative of the slim margin for error Nabokov was playing with once Andrew MacDonald gave the Islanders the lead with a power play goal 6:05 into the first.

While Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom (34 saves) was perfect after MacDonald's goal, his teammates peppered Nabokov with seven shots in the first four minutes of the second period and collected eight shots in the third period before empty net goals by John Tavares and Casey Cizikas -- each 15 years younger than Nabokov -- finally allowed the Islanders to breathe easy.

"When he's called upon, he always seems to make a big save and keep us in the game or give us an opportunity to win," Tavares said. "He's been like that all year. His presence in the locker room, I think alone, is very underrated. He's a leader in here."

The average age of the Islanders' active players Sunday night was 27.9.

"Sometimes goalies, they kind of do their own thing," Tavares said. "But he's interactive with all the guys daily and talks a lot and is real positive to everybody, and that's huge for a young group."

Hanging on to win was a pretty big deal, too, for a team that was outscored 12-1 in the third period of their last four games, including 9-0 in the first three games of the homestand. The Islanders were tied or led entering the third period of the losses to the Senators, Canadiens and Penguins, all of whom are in the top eight in the East.

"We got rewarded," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I thought (Florida) made a great push in the second period, they had us on our heels a little bit. But we played pretty well."

The Islanders will play 11 of their final 16 games on the road as they attempt to earn the franchise's first playoff berth since 2006-07. But getting away from Nassau Coliseum -- where the Islanders are just 6-11-2 -- should be good for New York, which is 8-4-1 on the road and has posted a winning record on all three multi-game road trips this season.

New York opens a four-game road trip Tuesday at Washington and ends the season with a five-game trek from Apr. 18-26. In between, the Islanders play just five more times at Nassau Coliseum.

"I think we have a lot of fun as a group on the road, we hang out with each other, obviously, and we seem to enjoy it and play good hockey," Tavares said. "So we've got to keep it going. The games are so important now. We have to be playing well every game here and on the road. We need some points and some wins."

The Panthers, meanwhile, remained in the NHL basement after another near-miss defeat. Florida (9-18-6) has lost 12 games by two goals or less.

"We're working hard, but if we win, it doesn't matter," Panthers center Shawn Matthias said. "You can pat yourself on the back for working hard, but at the end of the day we lost, so that's the bottom line."

NOTES: The shutout was the first home shutout for the Islanders since they beat the Devils, 1-0, on March 4, 2012. ... Entering play Sunday, the only teams in the NHL, other than the Islanders and Panthers, with losing records at home were Winnipeg and Carolina, each of whom were 7-8-0. ... The Islanders scratched defensemen Radek Martinek and Joe Finley and winger Eric Boulton, while the Panthers scratched wingers Eric Selleck and Jack Skille and defenseman Erik Gudbranson. ... The Islanders have outscored the opposition 25-23 in the first period this season but have a 15-8 advantage in their last 15 games dating back to Feb. 23. ... With Tampa Bay firing head coach Guy Boucher on Sunday, the Panthers' Kevin Dineen is tied with Winnipeg's Claude Noel as the longest-tenured head coach in the Southeast Division -- at a mere 115 games each. Carolina's Kirk Muller was named to the position 21 games into last season while Adam Oates is in his first season behind the bench for Washington.
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