Sharks goalie Nabokov on fire as he leads San Jose turnaround

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One night this season Evgeni Nabokov won't be starting in goal for the San Jose Sharks. It just hasn't happened yet.

The Russian netminder has started all 30 of his team's games this season while racking up an NHL-leading 17 wins and putting up a microscopic 2.00 goals-against average - second-best in the league.

"Nabber has been unbelievable this year," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said Friday. "Between him and Joe (Thornton), I've never seen Joe play better, and I've never seen Nabber play better either."

Thornton and Nabokov have the Sharks on a roll after an inconsistent start to the season, the team winning six of their past seven games to improve to 17-9-4.

That Thornton is doing his thing is hardly a revelation. But Nabokov's super season has gone somewhat unnoticed. Pascal Leclaire got the early season headlines in Columbus for his shutouts, Henrik Lundqivst got much-deserved praise for his play in the New York Rangers' net and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo has been turning heads once again with his stellar netminding.

But it is Nabokov at the top of the heap in wins.

"I don't want to just talk about myself," Nabokov said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday. "You can only be as good as your teammates. When your teammates are helping you, which is definitely the case right now, then it's a lot easier to do your job. We take pride in defence."

Grant Fuhr no doubt is paying attention to what's going on in San Jose. The Hall of Famer holds the NHL record for starts in a season by a netminder at 79, set with St. Louis in 1995-96.

"I played a lot of games in my first few years but obviously this year is a bit more in terms of how many games in a row I've played," Nabokov said with a laugh. "But I'm enjoying every second of it."

His career-high is 67 games in 2001-02 which he should easily top this year. The Sharks aren't concerned with the heavy workload.

"I think the top goalies want to play a lot," said Wilson. "Your top players want to play. He's strong and he's in great shape."

It's night and day from what was going on the past two seasons. Nabokov had privately grown frustrated with having to share the net with Vesa Toskala (although both got along great), a logjam that was no longer when Wilson dealt the Finn to the Toronto Maple Leafs last June. Now they're both playing plenty of games.

"It was one of those things where you have no control over it," Nabokov said of the logjam from the past two seasons. "You're kind of upset about it, but I just really believe if you stay patient and keep working hard you will be rewarded. I was told that as a kid. My dad was also a goalie and he told me that.

"Plus, it's easy to stay patient when you're in a good organization where you have people who believe in you."

Wilson said the fact Nabokov didn't make a public stink about it shows what kind of leader he is.

"'He's just a great, great team person," said Wilson. "He never complains, just look at how he handled the two-goalie system with Vesa. He's been a true professional and he's been one of the leaders on our hockey team."

Nabokov won't predict how many more games he'll play before backup Dimitri Patzold finally gets a sniff.

"I feel fine," said Nabokov, who battled groin problems two years ago. "I don't want to look too far ahead. I'm just thinking about tomorrow's game. It's really hard to say how many games I will play. It's up to the coach."



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