Back in Russia: Nabokov and His Defense Struggle in KHL Debut

photo courtesy of Sport Express

After all the hype and high expectations, Evgeni Nabokov finally played the first game of his KHL career yesterday, as his new team SKA St. Petersburg was hosting Dinamo Riga. It was Dinamo that ended SKA's season last spring in the first round of playoffs as an 8th seed. But the more interesting story was the return to Evgeni Nabokov to the top Russian league, after spending more than a decade playing abroad. 

Come to find out, Nabokov did not prove to be a miracle worker everyone thought he would be from the start.

Playing in front of the sold out crowd of 12,000 fans, SKA took an early 2:0 lead in the game. But the lead did not last, as Dinamo tied the game before the first intermission. Nabokov had no chance on both goals, as they were scored from the close range with no support from the defense. This turned out to be the story of the night. To give you an idea, here is an observation from Sport Express on how things were turning out.

The defense of [SKA] at times looked very shaky, forcing Nabokov to literally yell at his players from time to time to help them remember to cover the open opponents.

At times Nabokov was spectacular, including a save we were so used to seeing, when he found a way to grab a puck going for a top corner, while doing a leg split across the ice, and then pausing for a few seconds until getting up.. St. Petersburg crowd went wild when this happened. But he was helpless during other times, including a goal with less than two minutes in the game that put Dinamo ahead, and then on another goal with 5 seconds left in overtime. But overall, it was obvious SKA had major issues on their defense. Maybe the new defensive pairing need time to gel. Or maybe it's a mental thing - they are too confident in Nabokov, presuming there is no serious need to play defense.

All this prompted Nabby to utter the kind of language we heard so often here when Sharks were struggling.

We need to play much more conservatively on defense. We can't win without it. We have a lot of good forwards, and defensemen, but we need to come together as a team.

How would you grade your own game?

When I lose, I can never give myself a good grade. We'll continue to work, as we want to win games.

It didn't take long for Nabby to start calling on his team, did it?

My favorite Nabokov quote came in the end of the interview when he was asked how he liked the game atmosphere and how it compared to the NHL.

Lets stop to comparing this league and the NHL. I keep getting these same questions in every interview.. It's always the same thing - NHL, NHL, NHL.. We drew enough comparisons. Those are two different leagues, and let's just focus on the KHL from now on.

I'm sure allowing five goals in a home opener was not the kind of debut by Nabokov that Russian fans were expecting. If this happens to Niemi or Niittymaki in the first game against Columbus, the Sharks Nation will be on the verge of a mental breakdown. Plank may even find himself gathering the troops for a hunger strike and a lengthy campout in front of the Sharks offices, till Doug Wilson signs that top 3 defenseman. For the sake of our mental health, let's all hope Sharks goaltenders fare better in the first few games.  

For another report of the game and video highlights, make a jump to Puck Worlds, a fellow SB Nation blog that does an excellent job of covering International hockey. 

But how has the summer went for the former Sharks goaltender? Sport Express caught up with Nabokov before the season opener, and below are the translated excerpts from the interview.

We see that ever since you moved to St. Petersburg, it hasn't been easy for you to be constantly in front of cameras and to have an endless queue of interviews. When you decided to move to Russia, did you expect this kind of attention?

I don't think about this too much. I just get out and enjoy the game. It's always fun when you play hockey. It's not that different from the States. I was always in the light and answering questions from the media after each game. If people are interested in how I live, I'm always happy to tell.

Do you read the newspapers?

I'll lie if I say no. I read what's interesting. But there are a lot of lies in the media, as people make things up. I was surprised how many people have ill will towards Russian hockey clubs, towards us, or Ufa team. It seems that people should just focus on hockey, but it turns out so many want to us to lose.

I know it's a stupid question for someone as experienced as you are, but, are you nervous? This is different league, a return to Russia after so many years.

I wouldn't call it a nervousness, but responsibility that you always feel before the game. Especially in the first few games, no matter where you play. The seasons don't tend to start well, and, judging by the NHL, you need 10-15 games to get into the rhythm of things. But I'm nervous about something else - I'll be playing in a situation when I hardly know the opposing players, or teams, their strengths and weaknesses. It's like when travelling when you go to a place you've never been to and don't know what to expect there.

What did you like or disliked in the first Russian games, even the unofficial ones?

I absolutely did not like the empty stadiums. I know it's a preseason, but I'm not used to play under these circumstances, and in fact, it's uncomfortable.

I may have bad news for you - but you won't always have sell outs at KHL games.

We'll see. They told me it'll get better during the regular season. I always have to judge the situation with my own eyes.

I know it's tricky to ask you before your official debut to compare Russian and North American hockey. But judging by preseason, what are your first impressions?

Well, the level of hockey will be better during the regular season. But it's hard to say how they compare. It's such a different hockey in terms of speed, physicality, passing. It's just different. Not better, not worse.

Will it take you a while to adapt?

Can't tell you the exact date (laughs). But it's still hockey, and I'm not here to play tennis. I think I'll get used to it pretty fast.

Does your family realize what kind of attention you're getting in Russia?

I'm just a husband and a father for them. I try to control things and not allow too many very positive or very negative things in our home. I'll add that my wife visited Russia many times before, but for a short time each time. When you move, it's a different situation. My family joined me just this Monday, and didn't get used to it yet. After a quiet rhythm of San Jose, they'll have to adjust to St. Petersburg.

The question about your kids' school is a relevant one.

Thank God that's sorted. There is an English speaking school here, and it's very important, because kids can't just start speaking a new language right away..

As KHL season progresses, I'll update the Sharks fans on how it's turning out for Nabokov. KHL no longer has free online broadcasts of its games, but the action can still be found through other Russian and non-Russian sources. Hit me up via Twitter and I can usually still find a link to a KHL game you'd like to see. 

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