After missing seven games with a lower-body injury, Nabokov will start for the NHL-leading Sharks on Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. He felt ready to play for most of the past week, but coach Todd McLellan refused to rush his franchise goalie back into action before he was fully ready.
"It's been how many, three weeks?" Nabokov said after a full practice Monday. "You've got to get back in it and make sure everything is the way it was. I'm looking forward to it."
San Jose (17-3-1) was able to be cautious with its Vezina Trophy finalist because of the outstanding relief work of Brian Boucher, the well-traveled veteran backup who went 5-1-1 in Nabokov's absence. Boucher has won four straight starts, including Saturday's 7-2 victory over the Washington Capitals with Nabokov back in uniform as his backup.
Boucher even has a better goals-against average (1.88) and save percentage (.928) than Nabokov (2.71 and .891) this season, but there's no goalie competition in San Jose. After spending much of last season in the AHL waiting for another big-league chance, Boucher is content for the moment with a supporting role on his sixth NHL club.
Nabokov had won five straight starts when he was hurt on the final save of a shootout victory over the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 6. McLellan said Nabokov might make a handful of back-to-back starts in December, even with Boucher ready to roll.
"He was chomping on the bit last week," McLellan said. "He's got to get back into the groove, and we're going to give him the opportunity to do that."
Boucher's steady presence is just one difference in the Sharks' approach compared to last season, when Nabokov played 77 games partly because the club didn't trust his backups until Boucher's arrival in late February. A team that once leaned heavily on its star players now has veteran depth at every position after general manager Doug Wilson's offseason adjustments to a club that finished with the NHL's second-best record last year but lost in the playoffs' second round.
Although the Sharks have three of the league's highest-scoring defensemen with McLellan's emphasis on getting his blueliners into the offense, Nabokov insists there's not much difference in his job with new defensemen Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich charging up the ice to join the play.
"I don't think we've had a bad defense in the last four or five years," Nabokov said. "I think we're just scoring more goals, and that makes everything better. As long as the guys are taking care of their responsibilities on the other end, we'll be fine."