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FROM NOWHERE TO TAMPA BAY

Evgeni Nabokov's story spans 2 countries, 2 decades, 2 roles.

They say Evgeni Nabokov came out of nowhere.

Nabokov was drafted in the ninth round (219th overall) in 1994 by the Sharks after scout Tim Burke spotted the Kazakhstan native on a trip to see another player.

Nabokov found out in the newspaper he had been picked and showed up at his first practice starting from scratch.

"When he first came over, he didn't know the language and didn't have any equipment," Sharks assistant general manager Wayne Thomas said. "It was pretty incredible to watch him basically get it off the shelves and do what he did initially."

Twenty years and 686 NHL games later, Nabokov, 39, is the Lightning's backup goalie, behind Ben Bishop. It's an unfamiliar role for Nabokov, who has been a No. 1 for most of his career and hasn't played fewer than 40 games since 1999 (11).

But more than the 20-plus games Nabokov will likely start, the Lightning hopes his experience looms large, especially in helping Bishop, who is entering his second full season as starter.

And Nabokov, who made 21 saves in playing all of Thursday's 3-0 preseason win over the Panthers, is up for any task, his easy-going and fun personality more befitting a player half his age.

"Any time my name is called, I'm going to be ready," Nabokov said. "Obviously I understand my age, and people talk about it. But I don't feel it. Nothing I can do with the situation (being backup). At this age, I'm fine with it. I'm still enjoying playing hockey. I still feel like I can help the team achieve a goal, so that's why I'm still playing."

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Most goalies growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s aspired to be like Vladislav Tretiak, who owned the crease for the country's Olympic dynasty and won three gold medals.

But Nabokov wears No. 20 not for Tretiak but to honor his father, Viktor, who played professionally for 18 seasons in Kazakhstan.

Viktor coached Evgeni for several years, teaching him about work ethic and the stand-up style in net, which his son still uses.

But once Evgeni entered San Jose's organization, it was late goalie coach Warren Strelow who mentored him on the North American game and lifestyle. As he learned English, some called him John; the nickname stuck. Nabokov said his first couple of years in the United States were tough, but he did meet his wife, Tabitha, while playing for now-defunct Kentucky in the American Hockey League.

After a couple of years in the AHL, Nabokov got his shot in the NHL, backing up Steve Shields for 11 games in 1999-2000. The next season, Shields hurt an ankle in the second game. Nabokov took over the starting job and never looked back.

"If you don't use your chance, things change quick," he said.

Nabokov won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 2001 (beating then-Lightning star Brad Richards), the first of his nine straight seasons as Sharks' No. 1 goalie. He led San Jose to the playoffs eight times, losing twice in the Western Conference final.

"(Stinks) we were never able to reach our goal," he said.

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After three strong seasons with the Islanders, Nabokov jumped at the chance to sign a one-year deal with Tampa Bay on July 1, believing it has a shot to be a contender.

"We have the pieces," he said. "It's right there."

Nabokov brings a proven track record: a 2.43 career goals against average, .912 save percentage and 86 playoff games. Even he doesn't know how he'll adjust to the backup role - "I guess we'll figure it out" - but is confident in his mental preparation.

Teammates love Nabokov's youthful attitude and sense of humor; maybe it rubs off on him from his two kids, Emma, 10, and Andrei, 7. And Bishop said he's eager to learn from the 12-year veteran.

"I know I can ask him anything," Bishop said. "Because he's probably seen it all."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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