Here's a question that might take you a while to answer: When's the last time Nikolai Khabibulin gave up a soft goal? You know, one of those that you say, "Man, the goalie on my son's mite league team could have made that save."
Now while you ponder that, please knock on anything wood including your noggin because I certainly don't want to jinx one of the hotter goaltenders in the league and, of course, one of the big reasons the Hawks are back in the thick of the playoff race.
Stats are not needed to tell the story but they certainly help indicate how good he has been. In his last ten games he has had four 1-goal games, three 2-goal games, two 3-goal games, and one 4-goal game.
Now those are good numbers, though it's not the best streak ever in the NHL and some might say that the Columbus game where the Hawks had a 5-1 lead only to win 6-4 wasn't the prettiest thing to watch. But the Hawks' record is 7-1-2 in those 10 games.
The point I'm getting at is that Nik is illustrating why coaches use the phrase,"Our goaltender needs to make one more save than the other guy." THAT is exactly what Nikolai Khabibulin is doing. When the Hawks need him to come up big, he's producing. It's the exact opposite of what we saw last year.
Credit Denis Savard. He knew this was a better player than a year ago. In his opening press conference, Savard said he was going to "rely" on the 'Bulin Wall'. He meant that in terms of strategy, playing time, and I believe in a more figurative sense as well. It was like Denis was saying to everyone including Nik, "You're the man, now go out and be the man, and we will follow you."
No matter how good Martin Havlat is, we all have watched enough hockey to know if your goaltender gives up softies, it's a major buzz kill and can have a bigger negative effect than any positive a goal scorer can bring.
To me, it seems Savvy's system and Nik's goaltending were made for each other. Keep the pressure and the puck out of our end and let Nik make the great save off the rush every once in a while.
Khabby has backed up his coach's decision and now the confidence game has turned in his and the Hawks favor. It has worked to near perfection so far.
The New Year can bring about change in people's lives. For the Hawks, a return to the old would be just fine. If the early going is any indication, old Saint Nik is back and just as good as ever.
Email pre- and post-game radio host Jesse Rogers at: firstname.lastname@example.org