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Who Is That Masked Man?
Michael Farber
December 25, 2000
The Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov heads a class of unheralded goaltenders who have made a name for themselves with surprisingly spectacular starts
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December 25, 2000

Who Is That Masked Man?

The Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov heads a class of unheralded goaltenders who have made a name for themselves with surprisingly spectacular starts

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PLAYER, TEAM

RECORD, GOALS-AGAOMST AVERAGE

SKINNY

1 Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks

17-4-3, 1.79

League leader in wins and third in goals-against average; may keep Shields on the bench

Brent Johnson, Blues

11-1-0, 1.60

Standout rookie is pushing Roman Turek for the starting job in St. Louis

Manny Legace, Red Wings

11-4-3, 2.15

1994 Canadian Olympian had a 6-9-2 career NHL record before this season

Sean Burke, Coyotes

11-6-7, 1.87

In 13th season, he's playing better than ever; career goals-against average is 3.02

1 Bob Esseiisa, Canucks

8-1-1, 2.03

Ten-year veteran is yielding 1.16 fewer goals per game than his career average

1 Roman Cechmanek, Flyers

8-5-2, 2.02

First-year Czech player has seized starting job from slumping Brian Boucher (6-6-4, 3.27 GAA)

The best goaltender you don't know is a rookie who was selected so late in the draft that it wasn't even on cable, who hails from a country so obscure that it could be a $125,000 question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and who has a name that can't be done justice without a remedial course in Tolstoy. Although Evgeni Nabokov (yev-ZHEN-ee na-BOK-off)—or John, as his San Jose Sharks bosses call him—had more victories through Sunday than any other goaltender this season, most NHL players couldn't pick him out of a police lineup if he whipped off his mask. "But nobody really had heard of Dominik Hasek until he got a chance to play and become Dominik Hasek," says forward Mike Keane of the Dallas Stars.

Nabokov plays the second most important position in the league at the moment, ranking just behind Legend Coming Out of Retirement. This season is destined to become the Year of Mario when Mario Lemieux descends from the Olympus of his owner's suite to tug on a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater later this month, but until then hockey belongs not to that magnificent surprise but to half a dozen smaller ones who guard the nets. The NHL has been dominated by a group of goalies of whom the league had seen either too little or, in the notable case of the Phoenix Coyotes' Sean Burke, too much.

"Goalies are like pitchers," says Vancouver Canucks veteran backup Bob Essensa, whose eight wins in nine starts at week's end could ignite a goaltending controversy if Felix Potvin, who had nine wins in 23 starts and a $2.7 million salary, continues to stumble. "Touted 20-game winners sometimes win a dozen, and the guy supposed to start a game here or there wins 15."

Go figure. San Jose's presumptive No. 1 netminder, Steve Shields, 28, got Wally Pipped after he sprained his right ankle in the Sharks' second game. The 25-year-old Nabokov, who had five previous NHL starts, stepped in and Lou Gehriged his way to a .934 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against average through Sunday for the 19-6-4 Sharks. In Detroit the dominant goalie of the most successful team over the past five seasons, two-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Osgood, 28, was nudged aside by 27-year-old Manny Legace, a stumpy acrobat who makes saves look like grand theater and who had been tossed back to the minors by four organizations. St. Louis Blues rookie Brent Johnson, with an NHL-leading 1.60 goals-against average and a 11-1 record, has unexpectedly pushed No. 1 Roman Turek. In Philadelphia the Flyers slowly have been won over by the .919 save percentage of Roman Cechmanek, a sixth-round draft choice last June at a doddering 29. Hasek's understudy on the Czech Republic's 1998 gold medal Olympic team, Cechmanek blankets the bottom of the net, literally heads the occasional shot away with his mask and so delightfully mangles the English language he is one jumpsuit shy of playing Latka Gravas on a Taxi remake.

Finally, in Phoenix, the once highly regarded Burke, 33, who in the last three seasons had neither solved the Flyers' chronic goaltending woes nor sparkled as the No. 1 in Florida or Vancouver, was tied for the NHL lead at week's end with a .935 save percentage, a flattering number considering the Coyotes didn't sign him until Sept. 9 and then only as a stopgap until Wayne Gretzky's ownership group gained control and finalized a deal with restricted free-agent holdout Nikolai Khabibulin. " Burke's taken three points from us pretty much by himself," Canucks coach Marc Crawford says of the 6'4" 210-pounder. "He takes away so much of the bottom of the net that you have to go high on him. He plays so big he's been forcing players to change their shots. And he's been playing deeper in the crease than ever."

That positioning is the influence of Phoenix goaltending coach Beno�t Allaire, a contrarian who wants his goalies deep in the net to prevent pucks from being slipped behind them rather than at the top of the crease to reduce a shooter's angle.

Nabokov also plays uncommonly close to the goal line, but he has no obvious distinguishing technique, none of the rococo of Hasek's dropped paddles for Buffalo or Patrick Roy's Statue of Liberty glove saves for Colorado or Curtis Joseph's cross-handed passes for Toronto. In a craft rife with bells and whistles, Nabokov is white noise. Stick a metal rod in his back, remove the unfortunate San Jose teal jersey, and he could be a 1960s table-hockey goalie. He is quick laterally (as are most modern goalies), plays a hybrid between the stand-up and butterfly styles (as Khabibulin does), makes himself look bigger than his six-foot frame, control rebounds and makes short, safe passes on the infrequent occasions he handles the puck.

Nabokov's most significant asset might be his least conspicuous: patience. He displays an eerie calm usually observed only in Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. "Nothing fancy," Stars center Mike Modano said on Dec. 6 after Nabokov made 31 saves to salvage a 2-2 tie in a game in which Dallas dramatically outplayed San Jose. "He's methodical, well taught in the fundamentals. I had a great chance in the third period, so did [Jamie] Langenbrunner, and he turned those away like they were nothing."

Nabokov has indeed been well-schooled in the masked art. Goaltending was an heirloom passed down by his father, Viktor, who played 18 years for Torpedo, a first-division team in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. Evgeni would attend the games. When he was seven, a fan in the row behind him was riding Viktor, who was having one of those ugly nights that all goalies experience. Evgeni did what any son would do. He wheeled and whacked the heckler in the shin. "I told him, 'Shut up,' " Nabokov says. " 'That's my dad.' "

The goaltending bloodline and some inside information that he was headed to Moscow Dynamo, one of Russia's top clubs, induced the Sharks to take a flier on him with their ninth-round pick, the 219th overall, in the 1994 draft, despite never having seen Nabokov play in person or on tape. He was sitting in a sauna when Dynamo coaches walked in with a newspaper that printed the draft list. Nabokov was pleased, but the Sharks didn't contact him, and he quickly put them out of his mind. San Jose waited more than 2� years before finally catching up with Nabokov in Finland at the finals of the 1997 European club championships. John Ferguson, the Sharks' senior professional scout and a man of oversized opinions, left that tournament impressed, raving about Nabokov's active stick and comparing him to Hall of Famer Johnny Bower from goaltending's gilded age of the 1950s and 1960s. Ferguson insisted that San Jose's scouting department compile videotape so that Dean Lombardi, the general manager, could see Nabokov for himself.

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