SAN JOSE, Calif. – Evgeni Nabokov has appeared in goal in the last five post-seasons for San Jose, becoming a central figure in some of the Sharks’ recent playoff failures.
Craig Anderson is a playoff novice who will get his first taste of post-season action when the Colorado Avalanche open their first-round Western Conference series against the Sharks on Wednesday night.
The discrepancy in playoff experience between these two teams is about as big as the difference in the standing between the top-seeded Sharks and the eighth-seeded Avalanche. Nowhere is that as obvious as it is in goal.
“It should help us this time,” Nabokov said of past playoff experience. “I think we could learn from past years. But again, you can say we’ve heard that before. I think this time is different. But all the talk doesn’t really matter. All that will matter by the end of the series is what the score is going to be.”
Nabokov has been on the wrong side of the scoring ledger in three of his last four playoff series. He has just a 32-31 post-season record, although he has allowed only 2.23 goals per game and posted a .915 save percentage.
But he still has shouldered much of the blame for those losses as questions were raised about his skills as a big-game goalie. Those only got louder when he allowed six goals in less than two periods for Russia in a loss to Canada in the quarter-finals of the Olympics in February.
“He has to be a very good Nabby, but doesn’t have to be Superman,” coach Todd McLellan said. “That’s probably the best way of putting it. Just do what he does, be very good and very solid. He’s been that way for most of the year. We don’t have any concerns going in.”
The 28-year-old Anderson has no past playoff experiences to rely on or to weigh him down, having never made it to the post-season while bouncing from Chicago to Florida early in his career. He signed a two-year free agent contract last summer with the Avalanche and quickly seized the reins as the team’s starting goalie.
“I knew I could do the job, just given the opportunity,” Anderson said. “It’s been great for me. I think as the year went on, you get more confident as you go. When things start going your way and start having success, you try to keep building on it.”
Anderson started 71 games this season after never having more than 27 starts in his first six seasons. He recorded 38 wins and posted a 2.64 goals against average. The Sharks want to make sure he doesn’t feel comfortable early in this series.
Anderson has struggled since the end of the Olympic break, winning just seven of his 18 starts and allowing 3.28 goals per game – nearly a goal higher than his 2.42 average before the break.
But he knows the playoffs are a new start.
“In any year you’ve seen, more times than not, the MVP of the Stanley Cup finals or playoffs is the goaltender,” Anderson said. “It’s a guy going out there and having fun with it. … That’s what it comes to – it doesn’t come down to experience, comes down to the guy who’s willing to have the most fun out there and play loose.”
The Sharks know all about that, having run into more than their share of hot goaltenders the past few years. They were done in by Edmonton’s Dwayne Roloson, Detroit’s Dominik Hasek, Dallas’ Marty Turco and Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller in being knocked out early the past four post-seasons.
Anderson isn’t Colorado’s only inexperienced player. The Avalanche had one of the youngest teams in the league this season, with players such as Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, T.J. Galiardi, Brandon Yip and Chris Stewart all playing key roles this season.
“There’s two sides to every story,” Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle said. “The one story is they’re happy to be here and that’s it. On the other side, they can be young guys who don’t know what they’re getting into and that can be a dangerous thing.”
While the Sharks do have the decided edge in playoff experience over an Avalanche team that had the worst record in the Western Conference a year ago, that could quickly turn into an albatross if San Jose finds itself in an early hole.
That will just bring up more questions about the Sharks’ past playoff failures.
“We know that we are the underdogs, there’s no question,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. “I think the pressure is on San Jose. If you look at the last few years, they haven’t met their expectations as a team. I think that they have higher expectations than what they achieved. It’s going to be our job this year to try to make sure that happens again.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.