Starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov made his return to the Islanders lineup on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens following a three-week absence. Despite Nabokov’s brilliant play and a strong overall performance the Isles dropped the decision 1-0 in overtime.
Prior to the Canadiens game Nabokov’s last appearance was on November 16th against the Detroit Red Wings. He suffered a groin injury just 4:22 into the Red Wings game and was relieved by backup Kevin Poulin, who was credited with the win. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Wings game was the team’s last win spanning most of Nabokov’s absence, until a 3-2 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks on December tenth. It was also the first time since before he was injured that the Isles allowed fewer than two goals in a game.
Against the Canadiens Nabokov turned aside 24 of 25 shots including many difficult saves. On one play late in the third period he blatantly robbed Montreal forward Tomas Plekanec to preserve the scoreless tie. He looked revived, rested and steady throughout the game. His presence also seemed to have a steadying influence on the rest of the team, who collectively turned in one of their finest performances of the season. They dominated for long stretches and rebounded quickly from defensive lapses. Until giving up the lone goal of the game two minutes into overtime he was simply unstoppable.
Despite picking up a loss in his return, Nabokov gives the team hope moving forward. In the games leading up to – and following – his injury, Nabokov had been maligned by many fans and observers for what they perceived as lackluster play. He was assigned the blame for many of the team’s woes, despite sporting a 5-5-3 record. Backup Kevin Poulin and Bridgeport starter Anders Nilsson both performed admirably in Nabokov’s absence but neither was able to secure the starting position or, further to that, win a game until Poulin earned the decision in the San Jose game. Nabokov must remain healthy and maintain this level of play, and the team will need to build on Saturday’s strong performance, but based on this game there may be cause for cautious optimism.