The Sharks found some footage. Unfortunately it turned out to be three years old, showing Nabokov when he was 19 and foundering, a hunk of Swiss cheese on skates. Lombardi and his advisers watched in stunned bemusement as pucks whipped through his legs and over his glove from every angle, more Russia's Funniest Home Videos than a glimpse of their goal-tending future. Ferguson phoned a week later, assuming the rest of the front office would share his enthusiasm. "Well, Fergie," Joe Will, the scouting coordinator at the time, said diplomatically, "now I know what Johnny Bower looked like."
"When Fergie saw that videotape," Lombardi recalls, "he started screaming that someone had switched tapes, that this wasn't his guy."
That summer San Jose signed him. Nabokov was at first reluctant to join the organization because he knew he would be going from a championship-caliber team in Russia to some godforsaken farm club. The minors—in this case, the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the American Hockey League—lived down to his expectations. He couldn't grasp the game on the smaller ice surface, especially since he saw little playing time. He also had difficulty learning English, and he couldn't understand the roars of the fans for the goons and the silence for the skill players. Two months into the season he telephoned one of his agents, Anna Goruven, in Toronto and said he was going home. She helped persuade him to stay a while longer, a decision motivated in part by a blossoming relationship with a college student and part-time waitress he had met, Tabitha Eckler.
This is what Berlitz doesn't tell you: Love is the best foreign-language textbook. By the end of March his embryonic English had zoomed to conversational levels, he and Eckler—now his fianc�e—were a serious item, and his goaltending, gently nurtured by Sharks consultant Warren Strelow, was making steady progress. Nabokov had graduated from project to prospect. San Jose is notorious for rushing young players ( defenseman Mike Rathje and forwards Jeff Friesen and Patrick Marleau were all overmatched teenagers when they made their NHL debuts), but the team let him develop in the minors for another year and a half. The Sharks traded Mike Vernon to the Panthers last December only after Strelow had assured them that Nabokov would be more than a competent backup for Shields.
Nabokov made his debut last January with 39 saves in a goalless game against Roy and the Avalanche, and then he vanished as Shields carried San Jose into the playoffs and past St. Louis in a shocking first-round upset. When Shields was injured early this season, the Sharks players were crushed. "It was like, Oh, man, two games and our goalie's gone," Friesen says. "We didn't know what to expect from Nabby."
Nabokov started rolling this season on Oct. 20 in a perfunctory win over the expansion Minnesota Wild. That started him on a Sharks-record-tying streak of 11 straight unbeaten games, six of which came on the road. Nabokov was winning matches with his spartan style and winning over teammates with his stoicism, returning 14 minutes after taking a shot off the mask and six stitches in a 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 24. There might have been some soft goals along the way, but no one could remember any, at least not until a 45-footer by Vancouver's Harold Druken bounced in off Nabokov's right pad late in the first period on Dec. 8. The shot ended Nabokov's stretch of 207 minutes, 46 seconds without allowing an even-strength goal and landed him on the bench for the last two periods of a 6-1 drubbing. Nabokov says the benching was unexpected—he had the grace not to point out that he had stoned Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund on a two-man breakaway during the match-but he was fine with it.
Lombardi is an often glum man who frets that some of the unexpected performances by netminders this season is a product of the 30-team NHL. "Not to take away anything from what these goalies are doing, but now if a team has one 40-goal scorer, they're delighted. The [goalies'] success might be a function of the dirty word, dilution [of talent]."
Maybe. But those dim sentiments are hardly in keeping with the spirit of the season. In Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Vancouver and, yes, San Jose, the surprise gift should be the most treasured of all.
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