Nabokov off to fast start after intense rehab

Time and rest were supposed to heal the groin injury that troubled Evgeni Nabokov last season, but time and rest weren’t getting the job done. So in late July, the Sharks goalie approached trainer Ray Tufts. Maybe somebody should take a second look.

That second look discovered a sports hernia in need of surgical repair.

Within a few days, the procedure was done. Next came an intense rehab program — Pilates included — that ended up cutting weeks off the standard recovery time.

All of which has helped transform Nabokov from a struggling goalie last spring to one who has been perfect at home this fall: two games, 58 saves, two shutout victories.

“Yeah, I feel good now,” said Nabokov, who will try to extend his hot streak at HP Pavilion tonight against the undefeated Minnesota Wild. “So far, so good.”

Nabokov’s previous appearance in San Jose’s ongoing goalie rotation came Tuesday night in a 2-0 win over Dallas. He showed the mobility that was often missing last season as his goals-against average ballooned, his save percentage dropped, and he found himself watching from the bench as Vesa Toskala anchored the Sharks playoff run.

Injuries to his shoulder and knee were part of the problem, but they could be more easily diagnosed. It was the nagging pain in his abdomen and groin areas that proved more challenging to the player whose new four-year, $21.5 million contract identified him as a No. 1 goalie.

At the end of the season, Nabokov underwent a physical examination. He was told the damage was an abdominal strain, not a sports hernia — a diagnosis that had been correct with five or six other Sharks over the years. The prescription called for rest and relaxation, something Nabokov planned to do anyway following arthroscopic surgery to clean out his knee.

Two months later, when Nabokov was working out and trying to get back in shape, the pain remained.

That led to a second visit to Dr. William Brown’s Fremont office, where the sports hernia — which does not have visible symptoms — was found once it was evident the problem was more than a strain.

“Sports hernias are kind of difficult to pick up,” Dr. Brown said. “It might have increased in size, or maybe the muscles around it weren’t as tight.”

Surgery was seen as the only option — and the standard recovery period was nine to 12 weeks. Nabokov was upset.

“I was really kind of bummed because I had the whole summer to have the surgery,” he said. “But unfortunately that type of injury is not that easy to locate.”

Nabokov talked early on with Tufts about an accelerated rehab program.

“We got out the calendar, and we started counting days,” Tufts said. Training camp started Sept. 15 and was only seven weeks away, but that was Nabokov’s goal.

Tufts said the Sharks generally don’t set a firm timetable for recovery from surgery. “We just kind of tell players to go as you can,” he said.

Nabokov set a fast pace from the start. A normal patient might stay in bed a week after sports hernia surgery, Tufts said, but the goalie was walking the hills of his neighborhood on the second or third day.
Tufts and strength coordinator Michael Potenza came up with a workout that included Pilates, body and breath exercises more normally associated with dancers than athletes.

“We’ve added a lot of things over the years,” Tufts said. “Some of them seem a little farfetched at first, but when you find things that work and you get guys to buy into it, that can help them.”

The trainer said Nabokov kept at it, seven days a week, as many as five hours a day.

Tufts and Nabokov each credit the other for the fact the goalie was ready for the opening of training camp.

“Everything we did was just to support him and just make sure he didn’t hurt himself,” said Tufts. “But ultimately, with hockey players especially, it’s all them.”

Nabokov, however, said the training staff knew just how hard he could push himself.

“You come every day and sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. So you’ve got to know how much pressure you can put on it, how much work you can do,” the goalie said. “Those guys did an incredible job.”

While Nabokov has been perfect at home, his shutouts over the Islanders and Stars have been sandwiched around a 6-4 loss in Edmonton that was a total team collapse in the third period. Even so, his current .933 save percentage and 2.02 goals against average are improvements over the corresponding numbers — .885 and 3.10 — last season.

Goalie coach Warren Strelow praises Nabokov’s progress.

“He’s kind of refined his game a little bit,” Strelow said. “He’s worked really hard on his lateral movement and is focusing, reading the rushes and reacting.”

Both Nabokov and Strelow are quick to point out that improved numbers are a reflection of the whole team’s performance. The goalie coach, for example, said other players are blocking a lot more shots this year.

And Nabokov acknowledges that luck also has a role. Dallas, for example, hit the post several times — including one when Stars center Mike Modano tipped the puck through Nabokov’s pads.

But Tufts and the training staff know how much effort Nabokov himself put in after his surgery and recognize the impact it’s had.

“Lots of times you hug a guy and send him back on the ice and say your project’s done for now,” Tufts said. “For our staff to be able to watch him perform like that, it’s just a lot of fun. It’s exhilarating behind the scenes.”

Article written by David Pollak, San Jose Mercury News
Copyright October 2006
Permission to reprint article granted August 26, 2008