We're a little more than one-sixth of the way through the shortened 2012-13 season, and the Islanders coaching staff has made one thing very clear: This season will rise or fall on the shoulders of goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
The reason is also pretty clear: They don't have a choice. When the only other option on your roster is the skull-capped likeness to the Christian savior, you can't blame Jack Capuano and crew for trying to ride Nabokov.
The question that arises is can it be done successfully? Nabokov has played, and started, 88.8888888888888888888% of the Islanders' games so far this season (for the rest of the piece I will be rounding up to 89% for my 8 key's sake). That's a lot to ask of a 37-year-old goalie.
In the past three seasons, only six goalies have played in 89% of their team's games. Five of them were well under 37 years of age. The only one that was 37 was Martin Brodeur in 2009-10. In fact, in that season Brodeur became the only goalie 37 years or older in the past 30 years to play in 89% of his team's games (it could be longer, but I stopped searching after 1982-83).
To think that the great Marty Brodeur was the only goalie to be able to carry that kind of load at that advanced age says something about Nabokov's chances of doing the same. You can rationalize that because there are 34 fewer games being played this year, that there is a better chance of doing it, which I would agree to. But you're still talking about not giving a 37-year-old goalie enough time to rest and recover between games played in order to stay fresh.
Nabokov has done it before. In 2007-08 he played in over 89% of the San Jose Sharks' games. But that was 5 years and a lot of game miles ago on his odometer. Jack Capuano seems to believe Nabokov can handle the load:
"We're riding the hot hand for a bit. If you look at his past in San Jose, you see he's used to playing a lot of games."
That's like saying "If you look into Rick DiPietro's past, you see he's used to playing more than 10 games a season." Sure, years ago. But players age and bodies slow up and decline. It's hard to look at something a 37-year-old goalie did 4-5 years ago and say "because he did it in the past, he can do it again."
But again it comes down to options. Capuano added this before yesterday's game:
"Nabby has played exceptionally for us. He's been our best penalty-killer, too."
Do you really mean that, Jack? Or is it just because you can't say "Well have you seen what else I have to choose from?"
Nabokov has had his good games, but dropping the word "exceptionally" seems a bit much. He has allowed 3 or more goals in 5 of his 8 games this season. In fact, he has had as many games where he allowed 2 or fewer goals (3) as he has games he allowed 4 or more goals. His .905 save percentage is currently 22nd in the NHL. Is that considered exceptional?
Can some of this be attributed to the defense in front of him? Yes. But as Nabokov showed yesterday, he can have days where the blame can be put squarely on him as well.
Is it fair? Probably not. But that's what happens when you put this much stock in a 37-year-old goalie to carry your team.
But again, the Islanders really don't have a choice.