– Nikolai Khabibulin
has taken better trips West, to be sure.
In fact, the goaltender packed a career mark of 24-5-2 against the Flames (2.06 goals-against and .931 save percentage) in his bag to Calgary last weekend. As one of hockey's hottest goalies, stringing together a 10-1-1 record in his past dozen games leading up to and including last Saturday's 3-2 win in Game 2 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, he had every right to feel impenetrable.
But on the heels of his 33rd career playoff win, Khabibulin was touched for nine goals in two games against Calgary's amped-up offense. Is his façade as a Flames-douser fading?
"I don't pay attention to that," Khabibulin said on the eve of Saturday's pivotal Game 5 in Chicago (9 p.m. ET, TSN, RIS). "We win as a team and lose as a team. It's been that way all year, and it doesn't change in the playoffs. We're going to put a lot better effort out on the ice (Saturday)."
It's not just the four-time All-Star who is confident. In the face of much outside speculation that the time is right to shift starting duties to Khabibulin's season-long platoon partner, Cristobal Huet
, Chicago to a man is standing behind its Bulin Wall.
"Khabby has been great for us all year long," Blackhawks coal Joel Quenneville
said. "He's been a very important guy for us. He's played well, kept us in games all season."
Still, Khabibulin's nine goals allowed in Games 3 and 4 were more than any he's surrendered in consecutive games this season, and the five allowed on Wednesday marked just the third time all year he's surrendered as many.
"It was hard for all of us," said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell
. "We got into a hole and had to fight back. Sometimes when you do, you put so much effort [in the offensive end] you leave the back end exposed. I think that's some of what happened (Wednesday)."
"Khabby has been our workhorse all year," said Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook
, whose exhaustive play spearheaded his team's two wins in Chicago and the Game 4 comeback. "He's been so great for us, and we let him down. He needs our support."
To his credit, Khabibulin wasn't buying into any excuses. "We rallied to tie, and I couldn't hold it. It was disappointing game."
The goalie pointed to the three goals he allowed in a stretch of just more than nine minutes in Calgary's stampeding second period of Game 4 as one of the lows of his postseason career.
But the 36-year-old has struggled through rough patches before. Confidence abounds that for Game 5, the goalie who compiled a 2.33 goals-against average and 25-8-7 record in the regular season will bounce back strong.
"Khabby knows what the playoffs are like," Quenneville said. "He's a pro, one of the best goaltenders in the game. And we'll be counting on him."
Calgary is hoping to keep the momentum that's swung so dramatically in their favor as they head onto hostile United Center ice tomorrow night. By and large, the Flames have been the more relentless and active team in this series, attacking the crease and putting pucks on Khabibulin.
"We know they're going to continue to be aggressive," Campbell said. "If we execute better on our end and Calgary doesn't adjust their positioning, that aggressiveness can work to our advantage."
The series has been played tightly enough that major adjustments don't seem likely during the course of Game 5, and Khabibulin expects to see the same amount of traffic in front of him Saturday.
"We all have to do our jobs," he said. "We're all still confident. We didn't expect a short series."
For the most hotly debated and highly regarded player wearing the Indian Head sweater, the key to success Saturday boils down to some basic, applied math.
"We execute, we win," Khabibulin said.