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A stingy defense has helped the San Jose Sharks remain among the NHL's elite all season. Having Evgeni Nabokov in net has certainly helped.
Nabokov looks to extend his personal shutout record and the longest in franchise history on Saturday night when the league-best Sharks pursue their 14th consecutive victory over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.
San Jose (36-6-5) enters the weekend with a one-point advantage on Eastern Conference-leading Boston (76 points) for the league's top record.
Contributing to that success has been a defensive unit that is among the best in the NHL with 108 goals allowed, as Nabokov and backup Brian Boucher have combined for a 2.25 goals-against average and six shutouts.
The duo has held opponents to 13 goals in helping the Sharks win seven of their last eight games. Nabokov is 6-1-0 with a 1.57 GAA and a .941 save percentage in that stretch, and has stopped all 55 shots he's faced while posting shutouts in both of San Jose's games since the All-Star break.
After winning 3-0 at Colorado on Tuesday, Nabokov made 24 saves in Thursday's night's 2-0 victory over visiting Phoenix for his 44th career shutout.
"He's just been playing great," defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who scored Thursday, told the Sharks' official Web site. "We're trying to support him as much as we can and will try to keep it going."
Nabokov hasn't allowed a goal since Vancouver's Taylor Pyatt scored at 12:38 of the first period of San Jose's overtime win on Jan. 20. His personal shutout streak - a franchise-record 170 minutes, 10 seconds - surpasses the mark of 166 minutes, 7 seconds he set over four games from March 2-9, 2007.
Nabokov now has the Sharks on the verge of posting three consecutive shutouts for the first time in team history, a feat they can accomplish by continuing their recent dominance of the Blackhawks (26-13-8).
San Jose has outscored them 47-26 in winning all 13 meetings between the teams since a 6-3 loss in Chicago on Oct. 7, 2005. In two matchups this season, the Sharks won 6-5 in Chicago on Nov. 16 and 3-2 in overtime at home 10 days later behind Nabokov's 24 saves.
Nabokov is 10-0-0 with a 1.78 GAA and a shutout in his last 11 starts against the Blackhawks, who have lost eight straight in San Jose since a 3-3 tie on Oct. 23, 2003. This season, the Sharks are a league-best 23-1-2 at HP Pavilion.
Chicago enters this contest having split the first two contests on its current eight-game road trip - the second-longest in franchise history. Thursday night's 5-2 defeat at Los Angeles was the Blackhawks' third in four games overall.
Patrick Sharp scored his team-leading 22nd goal for a Blackhawks offense which has been limited to 19 goals in the last 10 games.
"I don't think we competed as hard as we need to in order to win hockey games," said defenseman Brian Campbell, who assisted on both goals. "Some nights we're still trying to figure out our roles, maybe a little bit."
Chicago also needs to solve its penalty-killing woes, as opponents are 9-for-22 on the power play in the last six games. That unit figures to be challenged by San Jose, which has converted 23.5 percent of its man-advantage chances this season, and is 13-for-43 in those situations over its previous nine contests.
If the Blackhawks continue their goaltending rotation, Nikolai Khabibulin will start Saturday. He's 3-2-1 with a 2.18 GAA in his last six games, but is 0-2-2 with a 2.98 GAA in his last five outings versus the Sharks.