The San Jose Sharks are hot at the right time of the year.
Some will credit the re-emergence of Jonathan Cheechoo as a scoring force, the fine play of Patrick Marleau - who was a non-factor through the first half - and even the leadership Joe Thornton has displayed down the stretch as reasons why the Sharks are suddenly the hottest team in the NHL.
All of those factors are significant.
But if you really want to get to the heart of the matter as to why the Sharks are suddenly looking like serious Stanley Cup contenders, look no further than Evgeni Nabokov. He has been spectacular right from the beginning of the year.
And in a season where there is no clear-cut favorite for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, the 32-year-old Russian has most definitely thrown his hat into the ring. And with that, he should also be a solid candidate for the Vezina Trophy, awarded each year to the league’s top stopper.
“When we weren’t scoring goals, he is the guy who kept us in position to be in first place and near the top of the league,” says Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
Through 73 games, Nabokov led the NHL with 41 wins (topping his personal best of 37 in 2001-02), was tied for second in goals-against average at 2.13 and tied for third in shutouts with six. He also led all goalies in time played with 4,131:50 minutes.
While the Sharks were never really in danger of missing the playoffs, there were times – particularly in the first half - when they did not seem to be the Stanley Cup contenders many predicted they’d be at the start of the year.
“I think what really was our issue was, we had about 10 guys who have been playing here for at least three years who were all playing at about a C average,” Wilson said. “I think the easy story was (Patrick) Marleau was not playing well and (Jonathan) Cheechoo is coming off a double sports hernia surgery last summer; but the reality is we just weren’t scoring goals.
“At one point we were on a pace to score 50 fewer goals than we did last season. And when you look back, the guy who really carried us was Nabber. I am biased a little bit, but I think he has been as good as any goaltender in the league this season.”
The Sharks, much like Vancouver with Roberto Luongo and New Jersey with Martin Brodeur, look to their goaltender to save the day when the goals are not coming. Nabokov has not let them down.
“We weren’t scoring goals, so we didn’t produce the run support that a baseball team would give a pitcher,” Wilson says. “All of a sudden we had guys getting back on top of their game and now we have guys playing to their capability and also playing in their proper roles.”
Wilson says the team finally got its act together during an eight-game road trip from Feb. 17 through March 1. Truth is, the road trip got off to a lousy start when the Sharks lost to the Rangers, Islanders and Devils, but they regrouped and won the last five.
“The answer came from within the room,” Wilson says. “The guys basically said, ‘Enough of this crap; we’re not playing the way we are capable of playing,’ and we have played really well since then.”
And when the rest of his teammates finally started hitting on all cylinders, Nabokov was there to greet them.
Mike Brophy, the co-author of the book Walking with Legends, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor on THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and his column, Double OT, appears Wednesday.
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