Last month goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was among a handful of Sharks called to the stand in the trial of a San Jose judge convicted of fixing traffic tickets for friends and local luminaries. The players testified that they gave citations—including three issued to Nabokov—to a member of the team's security staff, who forwarded them to the judge for dismissal. Brushes with Silicon Valley police aside, Nabokov doesn't often feel the heat of red lights flashing behind him. The 28-year-old's return to prominence after an awful 2002-03 season is the main reason the Sharks, who held a three-games-to-two lead in their second-round series with the Avalanche after a 2-1 loss last Saturday, were one win from the Western Conference finals. Nabokov allowed two goals or fewer in eight of San Jose's first 10 playoff games and was nearly impenetrable in the first five matches against potent Colorado: The Avalanche had a total of six goals and went 178:14, nearly three games, without scoring. "There's no other way to say it," Sharks center Vincent Damphousse said after Nabokov made 33 saves in a 1-0 win in Game 3. "Nabby stole the game for us."
Entering the season Nabokov owed his team a few wins. After earning the Calder Trophy in 2000-01 and winning a team-record 37 games the next year, he missed all of '02 training camp in a contract dispute. The club grudgingly gave him a two-year, $7.1 million deal in late October of that year, but he never got comfortable in net. His goals-against average went from 2.29 in '01-02 to an abysmal 2.71, and San Jose, the early Stanley Cup favorite, finished next to last in the conference.
This season Nabokov was slowed by a groin injury in November and endured a bad three-week slump in March, during which he was pulled twice in three games. But in the playoffs Nabokov has played every minute and has been the warmest security blanket west of Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin. Perhaps too warm: After taking a 1-0 lead early in Game 5, the Sharks sat back and played as if they were content to let Nabokov snatch another win for them. He nearly did, stopping two breakaways and standing tall during a second period in which San Jose was outshot 11-2. It took a brilliant no-look feed from Peter Forsberg to Joe Sakic to beat him in OT. "We can't wait for Nabby to make the big save all the time," said Sharks winger Niko Dimitrakos. "We don't want to leave him out to dry."
That would be no way for the Sharks to take care of their ticket to postseason success.