Collier: Veteran Nabokov puts pieces together for Islanders

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There was a time near the blossoming of this stunningly reversible Eastern Conference quarterfinal, a specific moment early in the first period of Game 2 Friday night in fact, when you actually had to wonder whether the goaltender for the New York Islanders was paying too much attention to the promotional menu.

"It's time for the Big Mac Attack!" goes one of those booming announcements in the Consol Energy Center, "If the Penguins score a goal in the next two minutes ..."

That's right, your ticket stub is good for a Big Mac the next day, and the way Evgeni Nabokov was getting victimized by the Penguins in the early part of both games in this series, you had to wonder if the wily old Kazakhstanian was secretly thinking, "Big Mac? Yeah I'm lovin' it."

The Penguins had forced the 37-year-old to the bench when they put four pucks past him on their first 15 shots in Game 1, then pumped three more into Nabby's net in the first seven minutes of Game 2, the last two by none other than Sidney Crosby, now even more a lock for Dental Patient of the Month.

But that was about to change, thanks in some part to that tiresome Penguins trick of blowing two- or three-goal leads at home in the postseason, and there were people in the Penguins' dressing room who knew things were about to change well before the Islanders' sweaty 4-3 victory.

"He's been around for a long time," said Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray, who played with Nabokov in San Jose. "He's a very confident person. I don't see a thing like this affecting him. He's a strong leader, a very vocal guy, especially as far as how he wants certain plays to be played. He's strongly opinionated, so if I was on their team I wouldn't be worried about him. He's been around a long time and he's experienced [poor starts] before. He'll come back with a strong game."

That was after Penguins practice Thursday, prior to the sting of the actual damage. By letting the series even itself out at 1-1 before departing for Long Island, the Penguins not only surrendered home-ice advantage for the balance of the series, they let Nabokov off the ropes, which is potentially an even more menacing development.

"It's hard right now to put the finger on something and say that, 'This was more important than this,' " Nabokov said when I wondered which of his 30 saves Friday night brought his game and this series back under control. "Sometimes, just giving your guys a little breather with a save is more important than maybe someone having a breakaway. The thing is, we did it as a group, and that's what you want."

There was no one in the Islanders' room who wondered whether Nabokov would bounce back.

"He was terrific," said Islanders winger Kyle Okposo, whose second-period bloodying of Matt Niskanen seemed to take some vigor from the home team, to say nothing of hiswinning goal one period later. "He gave up a couple of goals early, but he was able to find himself, because that's what veterans do. He really got us back into it. It's what we expected."

Nabokov politely expressed little interest in what anyone expects from him anymore. He's been in too many hockey games to entertain any theories about how they could possibly turn on anyone's expectations.

"It's my job," he said. "I just have to worry about the next stop. Those were good goals they got. The puck kind of follows their sticks sometimes. Good players find good spots.

'Crosby's around the net everywhere. Sometimes, he's at the far post, then he's right in the slot. To me, I just have to follow the puck. If I have to worry about that much skill up front, my head is going to go nuts."

For the moment then, the Penguins can try not to let it drive them nuts that they won the opener in this series 5-0, then got the best offensive player in the world back into their lineup and lost 4-3.

What once looked almost like a leisurely island excursion over the next three days, with maybe a piña colada and a conversation about who might be your favorite born and/or raised Long Islander -- Lindsay Lohan? Flavor Flav? Dr. J? Jackie O? Rob Scuderi? Billy Joel? Eddie Murphy? Walt Whitman? Jerry Seinfeld? -- now looms as 72 hours of high urgency.

Don't look now, but the Penguins haven't scored in 52 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time.

"Nabby played really well," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano.

"He made key saves at big moments."

The Penguins have to hope the key moment of this spring wasn't when Nabby turned back a Malkin shot when the other Evgeni was alone right in front of the New York net with 2:10 left in the first period May 3.

After that, the Penguins were not the same.

They're just fortunate this thing is reversible.

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First Published May 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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