In Game 1 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was just that.
Although he gave up four goals, none of them came during the Detroit Red Wings' three power plays. Detroit piled up seven shots and just as many quality chances with the extra man, but Khabibulin did enough for the Blackhawks to stay in the game all the way through. He stopped 38 of 42 shots, and Chicago found itself in a tie game until nearly midway through the third period.
The Red Wings came into the game 14-for-53 (26.4 percent) with the man-advantage in the postseason, but Khabibulin shut the door Sunday.
"We never want to get into penalty trouble," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews
said. "We know against this team, if we're going to bail ourselves out of situations like that, he's going to have to be big and he was."
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks' best hope of solving the Red Wings' potent power play is by staying out of the box altogether. But if they do go a man down, the players know their goaltender has their backs.
"I think their power play has so many looks and weapons on it that trying to stay out of the box (is important), but certainly we're going to need our goaltender to make some key saves and he did there," Quenneville said.
"When you have a goalie like that you can take chances and make plays," Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg added. "When he's penalty killing and being the guy back there for us, making those timely saves … he's pretty special."
Khabibulin is no stranger to big games. He led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup. After some inconsistent seasons since then, he's rediscovered that level of play during the Blackhawks' run to their first conference final since 1995.
In Game 1, he almost single-handedly kept the Blackhawks in the game by denying wave after wave of Detroit attacks. Even though the Red Wings dominated in puck-possession time and were outshooting the Blackhawks 31-21, it was Khabibulin's strong play that put Blackhawks in position to tie the game, 2-2, on Versteeg's power-play goal 3:12 into the third period.
"Bulin's played great for us all year," said Versteeg. "That's why he's there and that's why we are where we are. He makes those timely saves."
As angry as they were at themselves for losing the game, the players were just as disappointed to have let down their goaltender.
"For the most part of the game he kept us alive," Toews said. "It's frustrating because he plays a great game and we don't take advantage of it in front of him and take advantage of those opportunities we have to control the game, considering he's saving us and keeping us in there for the most part."Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer