UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When it comes to goaltending, the New York Islanders are always full of surprises.
Although Al Montoya has been terrific in his first three starts of the season, coach Jack Capuano elected to play his wild card rather than ride the hot hand, starting Evgeni Nabokov on Saturday night against the New York Rangers.
Nabokov made 29 saves in the Islanders' 4-2 win over the Rangers.
"It was a boost to play in front of a packed house," Nabokov said after the game.
In his morning news conference, Capuano said: "There's not a whole lot of thought, just no better time than now to give Nabby a chance."
Montoya, who won the starting job after an excellent training camp, is 2-1-0 this season with a 1.35 goals-against average and .953 save percentage. Asked if Montoya, a Rangers first-round pick in 2004, was disappointed not to get the start against his former team, Capuano said: "No, he was supportive of Nabby."
Nabokov, the team's third goalie on the roster, backed up Montoya in Thursday's 5-1 win over Tampa Bay. Current backup Rick DiPietro is out indefinitely with a concussion.
"Obviously I'm excited," Nabokov said before the game. "(Capuano) told me yesterday that I was going to play the game, so I was excited. So here I am. I'm going to have my first game."
Nabokov, 36, hadn't played in an NHL game since May 23, 2010, a 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks, when Chicago completed a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals -- a span of nearly 17 months.
"I'm not surprised by anything anymore," he said of getting the start over Montoya. "I try not to analyze anything."
The former Vezina Trophy finalist, who was claimed off waivers by the Islanders in January and later suspended for his refusal to report, appeared in only two preseason games this year. Capuano said he doesn't expect any drop-off in goaltending.
"I expect a big game," he said. "He's an experienced guy, he's played on the big stage before and he had a great training camp -- all three goalies had a great training camp."
Nabokov made his return to the NHL after playing part of last season in Russia's KHL. After being released by SKA St. Petersburg, he had hoped to be back in North America when he signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings in January. Nabokov played in only 22 games for St. Petersburg.
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement states that anyone who plays in a professional league before signing an NHL contract must clear waivers. So before he played for Detroit, he was plucked off the waiver wire by New York.
Once claimed, Nabokov refused to report, saying he preferred to stay home on the West Coast instead of going to a noncontending team such as the Islanders.
During the summer, New York held over Nabokov's contract, meaning he was still bound to the team for this season. Nabokov came to training camp and is now part of a crowded goalie mix with Montoya and the veteran, yet oft-injured DiPietro.
In 563 NHL games with the Sharks, with whom he debuted in the 1999-2000 season, Nabokov was 293-178-66 with a 2.39 goals-against average. He hadn't played in an NHL regular-season game since beating Phoenix on April 10, 2010.
Nabokov, the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy in 1998, entered Saturday with a 4-3 record and a 2.42 GAA in seven career games against the Rangers.
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.