I wrote half of it last night and was greeted with lots of Nabby spam this morning! It's weird because they all talk about him having to learn English and that figured somewhat prominently in my fic.
From Nabokov's heroics puts bite into Sharks
He stopped the low shots. He smothered those directed at his chest. And he always seemed square to the shooter when he let a rebound get away from him.
Evgeni Nabokov was always in position. Now, that's the bottom line when you are talking about the San Jose Sharks' fifth-year goaltender. Always there. Always ready to pounce on his opponent's next scoring chance.
He stopped 158 of 165 shots in six games -- an impeccable .958 save percentage -- in helping the Sharks eliminate the high-scoring Colorado Avalanche -- and snipers like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Teemu Selanne.
The key game in the series was Game 3, in which Nabokov stopped all 33 shots by the Avalanche to give San Jose a 1-0 victory and a 3-0 lead in the series.
"Nabby stole that one for us," said appreciative Sharks veteran forward Vincent Damphousse, who scored the game's only goal.
It was supposed to be the turnaround game for Colorado -- only no one told Nabokov, who made a great glove save against Hejduk midway through the first period, smothered a Sakic wrist shot later in the first, made a remarkable save of a shot by Dan Hinote in the waning seconds of the second period, in which the puck seemed to be floating in suspended animation before Nabokov gloved it. He also stopped Selanne, a former teammate, on a close in chance, clinging to the puck in his midsection after sliding out -- pads double-stacked -- for a crucial stop with less than five minutes left in the game.
What made it even more important was that the Sharks lost forwards Scott Thornton early in the first period and Mike Ricci for most of the game with injuries. San Jose wasn't able to get their normal four-line flow going on offense.
Turnaround? It was perhaps the most critical victory for the Sharks as they head into the Western Conference Finals, giving a young team that missed the playoffs last year another injection of confidence that they really can make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"If not for Nabby, the score might have been 4-1 or 5-1 in our favor," said Selanne.
And now, with St. Louis and Colorado out of the way, Nabokov had to be thinking about the Western Conference matchup of him against his former understudy, Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff.
"Nabby's always been patient in goal, always been poised," Selanne continued. "I tried to say something to him at one point in Game 3, but he was so focused I don't think he heard me. He seems to be in the same kind of zone that (Jean Sebastien) Giguere was for the Mighty Ducks in the playoffs last year."
And that zone took Anaheim all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Patient. Poised. Focused. That sounds like the same words goalie coach Warren Strelow used to yell at Nabokov when he first came to Sharks training camp six years ago. Though he was still trying to learn English, he knew what Strelow was trying to say to him.
"You have to be under control ... in practice ... and in the games," Nabokov said of his mindset and the constant urging of Strelow. "I just want to be in the right position. It's as simple as that."
Sounds simple, but it isn't. The routine is only simple when the goaltender is in position and the defense is pushing the opposition to the perimeter, limiting the number of quality shots against the netminder.
"He's kind of a hybrid goaltender," St. Louis Blues Doug Weight said after watching his team score only five times in the first round of the playoffs. "He stands up when he needs to and butterflies and controls the whole bottom half of the net like so many of the French and European goalies do today. We never seemed to be able to get a look at the net because of his being in position all the time."
Nabokov smiled at the kind words, saying that he used to get phone calls from his dad, Viktor, a well-known goalie in their native Kazakhstan for 18 years, all the time telling he was doing this and that wrong.
"I must be doing OK," he said, "because now, when I hear from him, it's mostly, 'How are you doing? I saw you beat this team or that team the other day.' "
When you see the excitement in his demeanor, it's obvious Evgeni has learned about the goaltending trade from his dad and he treasures each and every tip he got through the years. Nabokov said he remembers watching his dad play. He smiled when he remembered one particular game he was at, when he was 7 and his dad was having an off-night.
"There was this guy sitting in the row behind me," Evgeni said of a heckler. "He was pretty loud -- all night. Finally, I turned around and kicked him in the shins and told him to shut up because that was my dad."
The incident and the closeness of this father and son reminded me of my first up close and personal encounter with Evgeni Nabokov and his family -- in an elevator at Pepsi Center in Denver after the 2001 All-Star Game. Evgeni, his mom and dad, were excited over perhaps his first true test on a main stage to show the world what a bright prospect he was.
Listening to Nabokov and his parents in that elevator, I could feel his excitement -- even if I didn't understand what he and his parents were saying in their native Russian tongue. Evgeni's eyes were wide open and as we walked through the halls of that arena. He was armed with one of those disposable cameras that you can get for about $10 at the local grocery store or drug store, snapping pictures of some of the game's best players.
I recall seeing him introduce his dad to Avalanche great Patrick Roy. A snapshot was naturally required -- and though I couldn't understand Viktor Nabokov, I'm sure he said of that photo that it was a prize to him because it included his two favorite goalies -- Roy and his son.
In 2002, Nabokov faced Roy in the second round of the playoffs -- Roy winning Game 7 of that series, 1-0. Though Roy is now retired, Nabokov went back to Denver again this year and beat the Avalanche. All of which shows up how the 28-year-old Nabokov has matured since his name was first mentioned around NHL circles -- at the 1994 Entry Draft.
There weren't many people in hockey -- or in San Jose for that matter -- who thought they would be seeing Evgeni Nabokov leading their team in the Western Conference Finals for the first time when Nabokov was chosen with the 219th pick in that draft. In fact, you could say the only reason the Sharks picked Nabby at all is because they had a report ... from somewhere ... that the son of Viktor Nabokov was going to move from his club team in Kazakhstan to the Moscow Dynamo. That was it. A report. And even after that, there was no followup from the Sharks ... for 2 1/2 years.
It was at this point, at the 1997 European club championships in Finland, that Sharks senior scout John Ferguson caught a glimpse of Nabokov -- and immediately called home to tell General Manager Dean Lombardi that this kid was worth taking another look at.
"His use of the stick reminded me of Johnny Bower (Hall of Fame goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1950s and '60s)," Ferguson told me a couple of years ago. "I filed a glowing report on Evgeni. Even suggested that Dean Lombardi get some tape of this guy and maybe think about signing him."
But when Ferguson returned to San Jose, he got a couple of weird looks from Lombardi and the rest of the scouting staff -- and the bombastic Fergie couldn't understand why ... until he was shown the tape the Sharks dug up of Nabokov.
"They were laughing at my comparison to Johnny Bower," Ferguson told me. "Then they showed me the tape they had of Evgeni ... I started yelling, 'That's not the guy I saw. That's not the goalie I told you about. This guy's an imposter. Someone must have switched tapes.' "
By this time, Ferguson was laughing at the incident, because obviously the mistake was not his ... but rather a bad tape.
"It turned out, the tape they had dug up was three years old and, though it was Evgeni, it was him at a much earlier stage of his development. Much earlier," Ferguson remembered. Ferguson's insistence that Lombardi and the Sharks get another look at Nabokov resulted in San Jose signing Evgeni. It's clear now that Ferguson was right and the bloodlines are very, very good.
What's also clear is that with the way Evgeni Nabokov has already performed in the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche that he could be this year's J.S. Giguere.
From Dreams of trophy new to Nabokov
STANLEY CUP GOT LITTLE MENTION IN USSR
By David Pollak
The pride of Ust-Kamenogorsk has them rooting for the Sharks in Kazakhstan.
``I talked to my dad and he said the whole town is talking about it, the whole town is excited about it,'' goalie Evgeni Nabokov said Thursday after the Sharks' first practice since their 3-1 victory over Colorado landed them in the Western Conference finals against Calgary.
Nabokov, 28, held court on everything from his childhood to life as a new father. With Game 1 three days away, the conversation focused far more on his personal life than the puck-stopping skills -- a 1.34 goals-against average, a .949 save percentage -- that have brought the Sharks closer than ever to the Stanley Cup.
Growing up, Nabokov never heard of the trophy, even though his father was a standout goalie in the Soviet leagues.
``I think when I got drafted in '94 I started paying attention to the NHL and stuff,'' said Nabokov, who lasted until the ninth round before the Sharks selected him.
Until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, ``it was kind of closed and nobody really knew about it.'' That year, the flow of players coming to North America increased, as did awareness of the Stanley Cup.
But Nabokov had other priorities at the time.
``In '94 I had just moved to Moscow and my goal was basically to make the team in Moscow and win the cup in Moscow,'' said Nabokov, who was 19 when he began playing for Dynamo. ``And we did it. We won the cup that year.''
Did it have a name?
``It was the Russian League cup or something like that,'' he said.
Nabokov said his favorite players growing up weren't goalies. However, two former Sharks -- Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov -- as well as their Soviet linemate Vladimir Krutov were at the top of his list.
These days, Nabokov said, hockey fans in the former Soviet republics are very much aware of the Stanley Cup, which first traveled to Moscow in 1997 with Russian players on the Detroit Red Wings.
``Now if you ask a kid if he dreams about the Stanley Cup, he may say yes just because we can see it on TV,'' Nabokov said.
Which is how his parents have been tracking their son's performance.
``Most of the games they watch live. Some games they watch replay,'' Nabokov said, adding that Tuesday's 5 p.m. PDT start meant Wednesday-morning viewing in Ust-Kamenogorsk, a city of about 380,000 people in the foothills of the Altai Mountains.
Closer to home, Nabokov said his demeanor at home has changed since he and his wife, Tabitha, became parents Jan. 16. ``It's an unbelievable feeling,'' he said.
Before, the goalie said, ``you lose the game and you come back home and you're kind of grumpy all the time.'' Before, he joked, ``you're saying something to the wife.''
``Here, you come back home and you see this little thing is smiling. So you start smiling with her,'' Nabokov said of daughter Emily.
He said he continues to talk every other day with Warren Strelow, the Sharks goalie coach who is recovering at his Minnesota home from complications that followed a kidney transplant last summer.
Strelow has mentored both Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary's red-hot goalie and the man who backed up Nabokov before he was traded to the Flames earlier this season.
Nabokov said he tried to get a laugh out of Strelow when he talked with him for more than an hour Wednesday night.
``I made a joke: `Somebody said that you're going to cheer for Kipper,' '' Nabokov said. ``He took it seriously. He said, `You know that I'm going to cheer for you guys.' ''
But, Nabokov added, Strelow said he was hoping Kiprusoff performs well, too.
``He said it would be nice for San Jose to win four games, 1-0 in overtime. He said that would be the best scenario,'' Nabokov said. ``I told him, `Works for me.' ''
From Strelow Still Working Hard
This past summer, Sharks Goaltending Coach Warren Strelow dealt with some of the best and worst news he could imagine, and it had nothing to do with hockey.
Within one month, he received a kidney transplant, but was also forced to deal with the death of his good friend, coaching legend Herb Brooks. The movie "Miracle" may have further entrenched Brooks, the former NHL coach and bench boss for USA Hockey's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal winning team, in the minds of the American public, but Strelow was used to more than memories and a movie.
The kidney transplant, while successful, is still providing lingering health issues for San Jose's goaltending guru and have kept him at home in Minnesota the entire season.
Not that out of sight is out of mind. On any given day, Strelow may talk to two or three members of the Sharks organization and he is still an important part of the club's success.
He watches virtually every Sharks game off the satellite dish and tapes on netminding prospects throughout the organization are sent to him regularly.
Now he can watch the fruition of his work. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff of Calgary were ninth (1994) and fifth round (1995) picks who could only hope of reaching the NHL. In fact, until Strelow became involved with both players, they were prospects whose chances of backstopping an NHL club were no greater than countless other late round picks who never made beyond the minors.
Now the two are squaring off in the Western Conference Finals starting Sunday in San Jose, with one guaranteed of sending his team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I think it is a very big compliment, them not giving up on their goal of playing in the NHL," said Strelow.
It is even more of a compliment to Strelow's teaching ability
Both were decorated in their native countries, playing for titles in Russia and Finland, but that was still a long way from the NHL and both had to start with San Jose's American Hockey League affiliate, which was then located in Kentucky.
"It is a different game in North America," said Strelow. "It is more north and south here and in Europe it is more east and west. They shoot the puck a lot more here. The angles are different and the shots are on you quicker. It is a lot of reading and reacting."
The funny part of the adaptation to the North American game is that while shots do come quicker, they require more patience.
"They had to adjust," said Strelow. "It comes with experience and success. Like in baseball, pitchers have fast balls and curves. Batters can't swing until the pitch is made and the good ones wait and read the pitch."
An attacking goalie might surprise some lesser players, but they can play the part of the fool against the best shooters in the world if they are too quick with their decisions. When a player like Nabokov is on top of his game, he is so smooth that he makes the job look simple.
"You try to make the game easy," said Strelow. "Be positive and have lots of patience. ‘Kipper' and Toskala (Vesa, who currently plays behind Nabokov) chased the puck a little more, but they slowed their game down."
Slowing the game down is not the only requirement in a netminder's effort to reach the elite level. Nabokov, following a down year, recently finished a season which returned him to a position amongst the NHL's top-five netminders.
"He is so sound fundamentally," said Strelow of Nabokov, who won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year in 2001. "He controls rebounds and has a great catch hand. He ranks high in all categories and is really intelligent."
Strelow's relationship with his goalies is much deeper than that of coach and player, but it is especially tight with Nabokov.
"They are all kind of like sons," said Strelow. "'Nabby' will call me at 1:30 in the morning and ask, ‘Are you sleeping?' But he can call me any time. We're pretty good friends. He is a great guy and very coachable."
And hockey isn't a necessity of every conversation.
"The other night we talked for an hour and 15 minutes and not just about hockey," said Nabokov. "We talk about every other day. He is a huge part of my achievements here and a big part of our team."
Strelow has even noticed a difference in Nabokov since the netminder's daughter, Emily, was born four months ago.
"I've got pictures," said Strelow. "He's really happy and focused on hockey. Hockey and his family. I can hear the baby in the background when he calls. He is relaxed."
Their relationship started off on the right track from the very beginning, despite a language barrier.
"He didn't speak English, but he understood more than he spoke," said Strelow. "I played in the German League and didn't speak the language. When Nabby didn't understand something, he would look up at the ceiling."
Strelow could relate to the feeling.
One of Nabokov's first meetings with Strelow was in Minnesota.
"He came over with no equipment," said Strelow. "We put new equipment on him and he didn't miss a beat. Then, when his English was better, his dad came over and didn't speak English. He acted as an interpreter. We would sit and talk and ‘John' (Nabokov's nickname) said his dad really liked what I was doing with him. It made me feel good."
Nabokov may be Strelow's goaltender for now, but until Kiprusoff, who was traded by the Sharks to Calgary earlier this season, reached the point of facing San Jose, Strelow cheered his other former pupil.
"I watched Calgary when they were on and when (ex-Sharks prospect Johan) Hedberg was playing in Vancouver, I watched him too," said Strelow. "I'm happy he's (Kiprusoff) doing so well. I told him he had the talent to be a No. 1 and maybe an All-Star."
But now, it is all San Jose.
"I joked with him that somebody said he was rooting for Kipper," said Nabokov. "He did tell someone that he wants us to win four straight 1-0 games."
Strelow tends to shy away from the limelight, although that will be virtually impossible in this series. However, he defers a lot of the credit to the Sharks scouts.
"You try to make them the best goalie, but there is some God-given talent," said Strelow. "There is no substitute for talent."
During Strelow's medical absence, Vice President and Assistant General Manager Wayne Thomas, a former goaltender during his playing days, has assumed the on-ice duties.
"Wayne has a lot of experience and does a great job," said Strelow. "I'm fortunate to work with a guy like that. We believe in the same methods and styles. He has done an oustanding job."
Strelow talks with Thomas just about every day and to all the Sharks prospects every Monday, but his goal is to get back on the ice.
"The kidney is doing fine," said Strelow. "They said it could take up to a year, so I still have some time. If I could get on a plane, I could probably work three-to-four hours a day. I'm going to coach again."
He may not have been doing it his way, but Strelow has been doing an unbelievable coaching job the entire season. Even with the distance from San Jose, Strelow is still working hard and the Sharks and Flames are reaping the rewards.
"It is fun and rewarding," said Strelow. "I wish I could be there."
Strelow's ability to personally attend the Western Conference Finals is still limited by his recovery from the kidney transplant, but he is still holding out hope, just as Nabokov and Kiprusoff did when numerous others were drafted before them into the NHL.
Pouty baby!Nabby kicking a guy in the shin to defend his dad. That's so him. :P