Will Evgeni Nabokov Save or Condemn the Sharks?

Yesterday Plank presented us with a statistical breakdown of Nabby's career with San Jose Sharks. In his article he argued that perhaps Evgeni Nabokov is getting too many starts this season which may negatively impact his post season form. Not only that, in his follow up piece Plank argued that Nabokov actually was not that much better than his backups over the course of his stint with the Sharks, and that should impact his upcoming contract negotiations this summer. Hockey of course is not a game of numbers, but the identified patterns can still leave one wondering about whether we should be excited or depressed about the approaching playoffs. Today we'll discuss Nabokov one more time, but from a slightly different perspective.

Let's go back a couple of weeks ago, when Team Russia was facing Team Canada in the quarter-final game of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Among other things, that game was supposed to give us a preview of what to expect from Nabby in this post season. I do not need to remind you how it all ended, but we can all agree that it left more questions than answers about what to expect from Nabby this spring. The Hockey News even claim the Sharks are lacking clutch goaltending, as they approach playoffs.

Is there any hope for the Sharks in the coming weeks between the pipes, as the regular season is drawing to an end? Or should the Sharks fans not set their expectations too high, remembering the heartbreaks of the past few years? In my view, we do have a hope, based on Nabby's three historical performances.

1. Nabokov's Career with Dynamo Moscow. Before he moved to the States Nabokov made his name as a 20 year old playing for the best Russian hockey club at the time Dynamo Moscow (a club that over the past couple of decades produced such hockey talents as Alexei Yashin, Alexei Zhamnov, Sergei Gonchar, Maxim Afinogenov, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin - just to name a few). Nabokov's stats for Dynamo were more then respectable - in 90 regular season games spanned over three seasons he posted 2.01 GAA (with 7 SOs), and in 25 playoff games he posted 2.15 GAA. A less known fact is that Nabby won MHL Cup with Dynamo in 1995 and was named the most valuable player of the tournament (an equivalent of NHL's Conn Smythe trophy). I watched two of the final games of that series against Lada in person, and Nabokov was playing as good as I've ever seen him play during his long hockey career, including posting a shutout in the Game 5 of the final (at the time, the final was played as a best of five format) as Dynamo sealed the win. A year later, Nabokov went on to win another MHL Cup, this time splitting the time between the pipes with another goaltender, but still only allowing 7 goals in 6 playoff games. He was a clutch player then, but this was 15 years ago, so let's cite more recent examples.

2. Nabokov's Performance in 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This stage of Nabokov's career is more known to North American fans, as the Sharks reached the Western Conference finals and played in what is to this day their best post season in club history. Nabokov played one of the key roles in Sharks' success that spring, posting 3 SOs, to go along with an impressive 1.71 GAA and .935 SV%. The Sharks eventually fell to the Flames, as the only scored one goal in the final two games of the series, but when we think of that playoffs run, we first think about Nabby who took the team farther than they should have went that year, especially considering lack of all-star players on the roster.

3. Nabokov's Performance at the 2008 IIHF World Cup in Quebec. When we think of that season for the Sharks, we tend to only remember the never ending Game 6 against Dallas in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Brenden Morrow did not end that season for Nabokov, and a couple of days later Nabby found himself playing for Russia, and would allow just 9 goals in 5 games of that tournament. In the semi-final Nabokov shutout Team Finland and in the final Nabokov played good enough to stop Team Canada that was being led by Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley and Rick Nash. The Russian media declared Nabby MVP of the tournament, as Russia won its first World Cup in 15 years. The coaches and the media all agreed that Russia would not have won that tournament, if he was not in goal.

While we can name just as many or more other seasons when Nabokov's post season performance fell below expectations, this is the case with any NHL goalie, and that's why we love the game. But these examples show that the assumption that Nabokov has never performed in a clutch situation is not only wrong, it is plainly ignorant.

Finally, we need to make one more final point whenever we talk about goalrending in this league. Let's go back to that fateful night two weeks ago in Vancouver. Was it really Nabokov's fault that from hockey perspective Russia had its worst Olympic tournament in 54 years of participating in the games? Legendary Russian defenseman Alexei Kasatovov said it best:

I think that Nabokov is rightfully a no. 1 goaltender for Team Russia and he deserved to start against Canada. I would not blame him for anything. He found himself under an avalanche. One can handle this kind of pressure for 10 minutes, but not for the full 60. Hockey is not an individual game for goaltenders - it is a game for the whole team.

How far will the Sharks advance in the approaching post season? While it is a fair question for Nabokov, it applies just as much to Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Joe Pavelksi.

The Sharks will either live as a team, or die as a team.