UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Evgeni Nabokov pondered what Russian phrase would best describe his night’s work, which culminated with his 300th NHL victory.
He spoke in his native language and then translated it simply as “awesome!” Such was the way the 36-year-old Nabokov summarized the milestone victory that made him the 26th NHL goalie to accomplish the feat.
Michael Grabner scored the go-ahead goal with three minutes left, and Nabokov and the New York Islanders beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 on Saturday night.
“I want to keep playing because I’m not ready to look back,” said Nabokov, who made 23 saves against the struggling Sabres and improved to 7-11 this season. “I am having fun doing my job.”
Grabner put the Islanders ahead and then sealed the win with an empty-net goal. His 12th goal of the season, scored on a rebound in front in goalie Jhonas Enroth at 16:57, gave the Islanders (16-20-6) their fourth win in five home games. New York outshot Buffalo 40-25.
Buffalo had a chance to tie it, but Thomas Vanek hit the post on a penalty shot with 1:24 remaining. The penalty shot was awarded after officials ruled that Steve Staois intentionally knocked the net off its moorings.
“That could have been our saviour, but it wasn’t to be,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
The Sabres (19-20-5) are 9-15-5 in their last 29 games, a stretch in which they have not won two in a row.
“When you don’t execute exits out of your zone, you have a hard time generating much at the other end,” Ruff said. “On the bright side, I did think Jhonas was terrific.”
Nabokov recorded 293 wins during a decade with the San Jose Sharks before joining the Islanders this season after being claimed off waivers last January. He spent last season in Russia’s KHL.
“I’m enjoying the guys here and I want to keep working toward the playoffs,” he said. “We still have 40 games left.”
Only Martin Brodeur, Nikolai Khabibulin and Roberto Luongo have more wins among active goalies.
“He’s proven to be top goalie for a long time and he’s been great for us this season,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “He made some big saves. Winning 300 games is an honour well deserved.”
Matt Moulson put New York ahead 1-0 off a rebound at 13:10 of the first period, sliding his team-leading 21st goal past Enroth. The Islanders are 13-3-3 when scoring first.
The Sabres tied it at 14:48 of the second on a tip-in by Patrick Kaleta of Mike Weber’s slap shot.
Kyle Okposo knocked in a rebound with 3:44 left in the second to put the Islanders back on top 2-1 with his 11th of the season.
The Sabres knotted it just 42 seconds later when Derek Roy finished a broken play started when Nabokov mishandled the puck behind the net. The puck was intercepted by Nathan Gerbe, who passed it to Roy for his ninth goal.
The Sabres—beset all season with injuries—have lost a franchise-worst eight straight road games in regulation. They lost seven straight on the road twice during the team’s inaugural season in 1970-71. Buffalo’s longest road winless streak was 23 games in 1971-72 when they lost 15 and had eight ties.
“This was another tough night for us,” said Ruff, the league’s longest-tenured coach, who has been behind the Buffalo bench since July 1997.
The loss came in the opener of a seven-game road trip for the Sabres, whose next home game is Feb. 1.
Buffalo has had 19 players miss at least one game due to injury, including All-Star goalie Ryan Miller—out nine games with a concussion and whiplash—and defenceman Tyler Myers, who has sat out 19 games because of a broken wrist.
Only Enroth, Vanek, Jason Pominville and Luke Adam, have avoided missing a game because of injury.
New York All-Star John Tavares extended his career-best point streak to eight games. He has four goals and 10 assists during that stretch.
NOTES: Nabokov has started 11 straight games. He is the first Islanders goalie to start more than 10 straight since Joey MacDonald had a run of 17 in a row during the 2008-09 season. … The Islanders said oft-injured goalie Rick DiPietro will have surgery to repair a sports hernia and will be out 10 weeks because of that and knee swelling. He is 3-2-3 in eight games this season. … New York is 9-3-1 in its last 13 games against Buffalo, including 5-1 at home. … Ruff has 545 wins with Buffalo. Only former Islanders coach Al Arbour (740) has more victories with one NHL team. … The Sabres have used nine rookies this season.