Saturday, March 14, 2009

What rust? Nabokov shines for Sharks in first game back after injury

It was Evgeni Nabokov Appreciation Night at the Shark Tank on Saturday.

No, not officially. But by the huge ovation Nabokov received from fans during pre-game introductions and the chants of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!” you could tell Sharks fans were ecstatic to have him back in goal.

Nabokov had missed the past seven games with a lower body injury. During that span, the Sharks went 2-4-1.

The sellout crowd of 17,496 was even happier at the end of the night, when Nabokov stopped six of seven shots in a shootout and the Sharks grabbed a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

“He played well,” said Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo, who beat Kings goalie Erik Ersberg for the game-winner in the shootout. “He made all the big saves.”

Nabokov stopped five shots in the first period, as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead on Milan Michalek’s goal at the 5:28 mark, the assists going to Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle.

Nabokov gave up a goal early in the second period, Wayne Simmonds knocking a rebound past him. But later in the period he made a sprawling save when Simmonds had a breakaway chance during a Sharks power play. He stopped 11 shots in the period.

Then early in the third period, Nabokov produced one of the biggest plays of the game. The Kings had a two-on-none breakaway and came away empty against Nabokov. They never pulled the trigger because they never found an opening. Moments later, the fans erupted in another chorus of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!”

“You don’t have much time to think,” Nabokov said. “You just try to read what they’re going to try to do. The odds are against me.”

Even though the Kings didn’t shoot on that play, Nabokov called it his “best save” of the night. There were more great saves to come, these ones on actual shots.

In overtime, Nabokov came up with another huge save. First he blocked Anze Kopitar’s slap shot from the right wing. The puck wound up lying in front of the Sharks goal in the crease. Nabokov located it at the last instant and smothered it before the Kings could arrive and blast it home.

“I had no idea where the puck was,” Nabokov said.

Then in the shootout, Nabokov outlasted Ersberg in a battle of the goalies.

In the third round, Pavelski put the Sharks up 1-0 with a beautiful goal. He angled right, then left, then hesitated before ripping a shot just inside the right post. The Kings’ Jack Johnson answered immediately, beating Nabokov to his stick side.

That was the last time a Kings shot found the net. Nabokov stopped Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Alexander Frolov, Michal Handzus and, after Cheechoo scored for the Sharks, Teddy Purcell.

“He looked very sharp,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “We’re excited for him. We’re happy to have him back. … The rest of the coaching staff who watched him warm up, they used the term he was ‘zoned in.’”

Nabokov is just one in a long list of Sharks who have missed games because of injuries. Defensemen Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, two of the wounded, returned to action, along with Nabokov. Mike Grier, Jeremy Roenick, Claude Lemieux are among those still out.

The Sharks won’t blame their skid on injuries – that’s taboo in the NHL – but those injuries, particularly Nabokov’s, have definitely hurt their record. You simply don’t lose one of the NHL’s top goalies for seven games and not suffer some consequences.

Fortunately for the Sharks, they’re not paying a huge price for their slump, thanks to all of their good work earlier in the season. They still have plenty of time to get the rest of their injured players healthy and get back on a roll heading into the playoffs. With 98 points, they remained just one behind Detroit, which beat St. Louis, in the battle for Western Conference supremacy.

Even though the Sharks went zero for eight on the power play and found the net just once in regulation and overtime, McLellan said Saturday night’s win might be the official start of their turnaround and the beginning of the end of their offensive funk.

“We looked a little more like we should look,” McLellan said of the Sharks, who out-shot the Kings 39-24. “Sometimes when you’re trying to come out of a mini-slump, the bounces don’t go your way. I thought we generated a lot of chances. … Their goalie was a money goalie.”

But not quite as money as Nabokov.

“He played great,” Sharks Boyle said. “He came through in the shootout. He’s probably a big reason why we won the two points. We were all expecting him to be in top shape and he was.”


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