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Flames face a daunting foe in Khabibulin

by Todd Kimberley
How do you bring down "The Bulin Wall?"

The Calgary Flames are taking it one brick at a time.

The Flames face a formidable foe in the youthfully exuberant Chicago Blackhawks during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN), what with the star power of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg, to name a few.

But there's been no bigger wet blanket for the Flames over the years than Nikolai Khabibulin, who is a ridiculous 22-5-2 against Calgary in the regular season dating back to his days in the mid-1990s with the Winnipeg Jets.

But the four biggest wins for Khabibulin against Calgary came in the spring of 2004, when his Tampa Bay Lightning outlasted the Flames in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final.

"I saw that record the other night," said Calgary forward Rene Bourque. "He's a great goalie. When he's on his game, he's hard to beat. I played with him for three years and he's one of the best goalies in the League. It's not going to be easy to get 'em by him, but we'll have to find a way."

The Flames, who slipped to fifth in the Western Conference in the final week of the season, thus earning a date with the young, sleek No. 4-seeded Blackhawks, practiced Tuesday at Calgary's Pengrowth Saddledome, and were scheduled to fly to Chicago Wednesday morning in preparation for Thursday's Game 1 of the conference quarter-final series at the United Center.

Much of the talk in the Flames' dressing room centered on Khabibulin, who owns a career 2.06 regular-season goals-against average against Calgary and took three games from the Flames this season, allowing only six goals against.

"He's a reactive goalie who stays back in his net," Flames center Michael Cammalleri said. "We'll try and get a lot of pucks on him, get some traffic in there, and make it as hard as we can on him."

Added Flames coach Mike Keenan: "Ken Dryden dominated the Boston Bruins, for example. (Khabibulin) is a confident goalie. He's playing well right now (with) two shutouts in his last four games (of the regular season). We know that. It's one thing that's going to be intriguing about this series."

The Blackhawks dominated the Flames during the regular-season series, with Calgary extracting its lone point from four games during a 3-2 overtime loss at home on Dec. 19. Chicago also rang up lopsided victories by scores of 6-1, 5-2 and 5-2.

Cammalleri is one of four Flames making his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut Thursday, along with fellow forwards Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Olli Jokinen.

No current NHL player, however, has waited as long as Jokinen to get a taste of Stanley Cup post-season action.

The former King, Islander, Panther and Coyote, acquired from Phoenix at the NHL trade deadline on March 4, has played 799 career regular-season games without a glimpse of the Cup.

"As a player, you always have high expectations. This time of the year, all that matters is how we're going to get that win," said Jokinen, the No. 3 pick by Los Angeles in 1997.

"I think everyone knows the track record that I have. I've been here since I was 19, a regular in this League ... (but) it's a lot bigger than me. It's about winning that first game (of the series). It's not about me getting my first playoff game."

The Flames had been decimated by injuries over the final 10 days of the regular season, but the cavalry has arrived, so to speak, in advance of Thursday.

Defenseman Dion Phaneuf (upper-body), Glencross (undisclosed) and Bourque (high ankle sprain) should be back in the lineup for Game 1.
Cornerstone defenseman Robyn Regehr (lower-body) and fellow rearguard Cory Sarich (lower-body) could also return to action during the first round against the 'Hawks.

Forwards Dustin Boyd, Brett Sutter, Warren Peters, Kyle Greentree and David Van Der Gulik, and goalie Leland Irving, have been summoned from the AHL. So has veteran defenseman Anders Eriksson, who had to clear re-entry waivers first.

"It's exciting for the players to see some assistance, getting some of our injured players from the roster," said Keenan. "And we shouldn't overlook the valuable contribution of the players we brought up from the American League club. They had an influence in our standing through the course of the season. They were contributors in a lot of different ways, and in tough circumstances, when they were called up."
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